For our last episode of the year, we’re summing up the year in culture with Matt Schley, Alyssa I. Smith, Thu-Huong Ha and Owen Ziegler, who tell us why anime dominated in 2023, which books stood out among a lackluster crowd and why the Zelda franchise is experiencing a renaissance.

Hosted by Shaun McKenna and produced by Dave Cortez.

On this episode:

Shaun McKenna: Articles | X

Matt Schley: Articles | X

Alyssa I. Smith: Articles

Thu-Huong Ha: Articles | X

Owen Ziegler: Articles

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Get in touch: Send us feedback at [email protected]. Support the show by rating, reviewing and sharing the episode with a friend if you’ve enjoyed it. For a transcript of the show, visit, and don’t forget to follow us on X!

Transcript note: Deep Dive is made to be listened to, and we recommend this transcript be used as an accompaniment to the episode. This transcript has been generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcription, and may contain errors. Please check its accuracy against the episode.

Shaun McKenna 00:08

Welcome to Deep Dive from The Japan Times, I’m Shaun McKenna. In what has become a kind of tradition at Deep Dive, we’re going to use the last episode of the year to recap what our Life & Culture team liked by way of film, anime, books and gaming this year. We have been running a bunch of year-end pieces that feature a range of topics — music, restaurants, gender — and you can find those in the newspaper or on our website: For now, let’s get to the cultcha! For now, let's get to the culture

With me today, assembling like the various limbs of a giant robot that will save the city, are Japan Times culture editor Alyssa I. Smith...

Alyssa Smith 00:56


Shaun McKenna 0:57

Culture critic Thu-huong Ha.

Thu-Huong Ha 00:58


Shaun McKenna 01:00

And making his debut, Lifestyle editor and gaming enthusiast Owen Ziegler.

Owen Ziegler 01:05

Hello, everybody.

Shaun McKenna 01:06

So to celebrate the end of the year, I have brought in some sparkling wine.

Alyssa Smith 01:09

Oh, nice.

Shaun McKenna 01:11

OK, I'm not really good at opening these.

Thu-Huong Ha 01:14

Is that why it's your job?

Owen Ziegler 01:15

You can do it. We've been waiting all year.

Alyssa Smith 01:17

Did you make me do this last year?

Shaun McKenna 01:19

I did this two years ago actually on our podcast with Oscar.

Alyssa Smith 01:22

Oh, here we go.


Owen Ziegler 01:25

Very nice!

Shaun McKenna 1:28

Sounds festive. OK, while I pour out some drinks for my colleagues, we're going to bring you a discussion I had with anime writer Matt Schley last week. Now, we recorded before the North American release of Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Boy and he Heron,” but according to a report in Variety, the movie made $12.8 million dollars in its debut weekend and became the first original anime production to top the U.S. box office. So while we toast to Miyazaki, our colleagues and Owen’s Deep Dive debut, here's my chat with Matt.


Hello, Matt.

Matt Schely 02:05

Hey, Shaun.

Shaun McKenna 02:06

So, last weekend saw the release of “The Boy and he Heron” in North America. It was released in Japan in July, and you wrote about the film's performance in this country last week in your year end anime wrap.

Matt Schely 02:18

I did indeed.

Shaun McKenna 02:19

I liked your lead in it. You asked if anime-loving time travelers from 2013 jumped forward a decade to this year, what would they be more surprised to learn: that there was a new high Hayao Miyazaki film in theaters or that it wasn't the biggest hit of the year? Can you explain what you meant by that?

Matt Schley 02:35

Yeah, sure. So, like 10 years ago, 2013, where our fictional time travelers are coming from, Hayao Miyazaki has just come out with what is supposed to be his final film, which is called “The Wind Rises.” After that film comes out, they do a big press conference and he says, I'm done. I'm not going to make any more feature films. I'm going to go make some shorts or do some comics or whatever. But I'm getting old. It's time for me to retire. So if you were to jump forward a decade from them, you might go, “Wait, wait, didn't you say he was gonna retire? What’s going on here? He's got a new movie out.” So that would be surprising. But it might also be surprising to these guys that there's a new Miyazaki movie out and it's not the biggest hit of the year. Because ever since the ’90s, every time a Miyazaki film came out here, it was kind of automatically No. 1 of the year. Huge smash hits for a couple solid decades there. So this year, the box office was filled with anime, and let's not say that “The Boy and he Heron” didn't do big numbers, because it did. It was a very successful film. But there are about three anime films that did better than it did.

Shaun McKenna 03:45

OK, yeah. So what stopped Miyazaki? Because he's like, what are we calling him the godfather of anime? The king of anime? What or who stopped him from taking the No. 1 spot at the box office?

Matt Schley 03:57

Yeah, there's a couple factors here. There's the fact that Studio Ghibli, which is his animation studio that he helped co-found didn't advertise the movie. Which I think we talked about earlier this year. There might be an alternate universe somewhere where they ran the typical trailers and press junkets and stuff for it and it ended up being the highest grossing film of the year. Who knows? But the fact is, they didn't. So there's that. And then there's the fact that over the past decade, there's been a general acceptance of anime films by mainstream audiences that aren't necessarily directed by Miyazaki or by Disney, for example, which isn’t anime in the way that we think of it as Japanese animation. But it is animation. Yeah, so that's why.

Shaun McKenna 04:46

You mentioned there were three animated films that came ahead. What films were those?

Matt Schley 04:52

So No. 1 is animated, not necessarily Japanese animation. It was the “Super Mario Brothers” film. Not Japanese, but it's based on a Japanese property.

Shaun McKenna 05:01

Did you see that?

Matt Schely 05:02

I did.

Shaun McKenna 05:02

How was it?

Matt Schely 05:03


Shaun McKenna 05:04

How was it compared to the Super Mario film that you reviewed staring Bob Hoskins?

Matt Schley 05:10

Man, I love that movie. It gets a bad rap. Lovely film. No, the “Super Mario Brothers” movie, I can see why it made a lot of money. It's got nostalgia for the people who played the games. It's very kid friendly as well. I mean, I get it. It didn't just make money in Japan, it made money all over the world. So there's that. Then there was the latest “Detective Conan” film. This is a long-running series of films about kind of a pint sized detective,

Shaun McKenna 05:37

and this was specifically “Detective Conan: Black Iron Submarine.”

Matt Schley 05:42

Yeah. So these Conan films come out, like clockwork, about once a year, around Golden Week in the April-May period when kids have school off and things like that. And they tend to do very well. But this year, particularly, it's the highest grossing Conan film yet. Why? It could be that it's centered around a very popular character this time around. People were excited to see what was going to happen. And then we've got the film called “The First Slam Dunk,” which came out technically in 2022, but the very end of the year. And that film is a sequel, sidequel to a long-running manga and anime called “Slam Dunk,” which is about basketball. It was directed by the guy who wrote the original manga who'd never made a movie before. But it was super good. And that did huge numbers. It was in theaters for months and months and months. So those three films ended up beating Miyazaki.

Shaun McKenna 06:38

Kind of usurping the king. So who else performed well, this year when it came to animated films and TV series, even like, what should I be checking out when I have downtime over the holidays?

Matt Schley 06:50

Sure. I mean, in terms of anime, we've got the three films we've mentioned up top. On TV, we had series like “Oshi no Ko,” which is kind of about the dark side of the pop idol industry in Japan. That did really well, it kind of crossed over to non-mainstream audiences, thanks in part to the opening theme song, which is called idle by Yoasobi, which was the kind of the biggest hit single of the year.

Shaun McKenna 07:15

Yeah we mentioned that in a discussion with Patrick St. Michel, about the year in music.

Matt Schley 07:19

Yeah. And that kind of shows how all these different elements of media crossover, right, the song is popular so the amime does well, the anime is popular songs as well. That's how they kind of do these things. You know? That series was also notable in that it had a 90-minute first episode, as opposed to a typical 30-minute first episode. It's Based on a manga, and it allowed them to tell more of the story in one-go, and kind of hook people. We also had a lot of Season 2 or Season 3, Season 4 of very popular series. There was a new season of “Demon Slayer.” There was a new season of “Jujutsu Kaisen.” And then we had the final season of “Attack on Titan,” finally, 10 years in the making.

Shaun McKenna 08:03

So did you watch that?

Matt Schley 08:04

I did not. I kind of got lost halfway through the series. You know, that started airing 10 years ago, but obviously, it's got a ton of fans and people were excited to see that close.

Shaun McKenna 08:16

Do you know how people received it?

Matt Schley 08:18

From just anecdotally people really liked it. Our mutual buddy Eric really liked it.

Shaun McKenna 08:24

This is Eric Margolis. He's a contributing writer at The Japan Times.

Matt Schley 08:28

So if he was here could tell you more about it. Yeah, I read the spoilers so I know what happened.

Shaun McKenna 08:34

Just kind of on that given anime’s current popularity, especially overseas, I think there was like a “One Piece” ad at a, what was it a sports game or something like that?

Matt Schley 08:44

Some tie up with an NFL team or not? Yeah?

Shaun McKenna 08:48

Are we in a golden age of anime?

Matt Schley 08:51

Yeah, that's a complicated question. I mean, again, in terms of pure amount of content, especially again, when we're looking at the feature film side of things, you've got a lot to choose from. That is for sure. You've got, also, a lot of stuff that's making a lot of money at the box office. If you look at some of the top ranked films, just the last five years or so you've got a few films by Makoto Shinkai, “Suzume,” “Your Name.” You've got the first “Slam Dunk” again, which did really well. The “Demon Slayer” film that came out in the middle of the pandemic and is now the No. 1 film in Japan of all time. So people are really digging this content, obviously, and there's a lot more of it, because producers can see that it makes money, right. I think that where I would hesitate to call it a golden age of anime is because producers are seeing that it can make all this money, we're seeing these films that don't take a lot of risks, you could say, that really target a very general audience. Which isn't inherently a bad thing. They're good films that target the whole family. But you almost walk out of some of these films and think that they weren't made by a single visionary director, they were met by a committee in a room thinking. We need to hire this voice actor because he's popular with those under 25, and we need to hire this guy because he appeals to the over 35 crowd. And, again, we talked about Yoasobi and “Idol.” I think with “Oshi no Ko” it’s a perfect fit because it's a show about idols and music and things like that. Other times, it can feel a bit forced. You watch a film, and it's got an ending theme song that doesn't fit the style or theme of the film at all, but it's by the band that's popular right now. I've seen a lot of that when it comes to big-budget anatomy.

Shaun McKenna 10:38

Is there anything that you're kind of excited about for 2024?

Matt Schley 10:42

Yes. Which is a great question, because I don't want to come off just sounding like a grumpy, grumpy guy. There are some really interesting directors working in the industry today, despite all of these kinds of creative restrictions. There's a director named Naoko Yamada, who is known for the film “A Silent Voice,” which came out a few years ago. She's got a new film coming out next year, which is called “Your Color.” Looks very interesting. Very little details about it so far. I'm expecting that to be very good. There's a director named Sunao Katabuchi, whose last film was called “In This Corner of the World.” A very, very well done World War Two II film, and he's got a film — I don't think it's been officially announced for next year, but it's in the works at least — It's called “The Mourning Children.” It takes place in the Heian Period (794 to 1185 ), if I'm not mistaken. And he's been going around showing a few minutes of footage of that, and it looks incredible. So there's that coming out. There's a director named Kenji Iwaisawa, who came out with a this independent quirky film called “Ongaku” a few years ago, which took years to make. It was an independent film almost drawn by himself. He's got a film coming out called “Hina,” which also looks pretty incredible. So there's good stuff on the horizon for sure.

Shaun McKenna 11:59

OK, so maybe that golden age is yet to come. All right, well, thanks for coming on the show.

Matt Schley 12:07


Shaun McKenna 12:07

And, Happy New Year.

Matt Schley 012:09

Happy New Year.

Shaun McKenna 12:17

OK, let's get a cheers.

All 12:19

Cheers! Kanpai! Careful!

Shaun McKenna 12:22

OK, so we're back, and thanks again to Matt Schley for speaking to us about anime in 2023. Did everyone here catch “The Boy and the Heron” when it came out?

Owen Ziegler 12:30

I think I'm the only one who hasn't seen it.

Thu-Huong Ha 12:31

I did. I was on this podcast talking about it ... with Matt Schely.

Alyssa Smith 12:36

You said the day it opened, right?

Thu-Huong Ha 12:37

I went a couple of days after it opened. I saw it in Miyazaki for fun. No, no. No relation. No reason. But Alyssa, we haven't actually talked about it. What did you ... what did you think when you saw it?

Alyssa Smith 12:50

I don't think I'm the only person who walked out of the theater being a little bit confused. I read the book that it's loosely based on about a year before the film came out. The book is called “How Do You Live” by Genzaburo Yoshino.

Shaun McKenna 13:03

What’s the Japanese title?

Alyssa Smith 13:05

“Kimitachi Wa Do Ikiru Ka.” So, I read the book beforehand as sort of prep, and I was surprised that it's quite a departure.

Thu-Huong Ha 13:17

It's like not even the same story.

Alyssa Smith 13:20

It’s not at all. There's one scene that references the book where the main character finds a copy of the book that his mother gifted to him, and that's basically the only time I was reminded of the original book. So, my opinion is I need to see it again, and I'm looking forward to watching it in English as well.

Thu-Huong Ha 13:41

Yeah, that's a good point. I think I also was very confused. The plot was a mess. Meandering and chaotic. I still enjoyed myself, because it was the first time I was seeing a Miyazaki movie, like at the time it came out in theaters. So like, I got a cinematic experience that I hadn't had before. And it was just so beautiful. It was just, he's just ... every frame was like, “sweet.”

Alyssa Smith 14:07

I completely agree with you about watching it in theaters for the first time, and it felt so immersive. And it's kind of a familiar world that I, you know, grew up watching. So it was nice in that sense to, like, be back there.

Owen Ziegler 14:21

Where would you rank this, in terms of Miyazaki’s movies? Is this, should I get myself to a theater right now or should I wait until I can watch it at home?

Thu-Huong Ha 14:28

I think if you're going home to the U.S. and you can get a chance to see it because it's out right now there, I think it's cool to see in the theater. Ranking it, it's definitely not his best movie.

Alyssa Smith 14:39

It's not in my top three.

Thu-Huong Ha 14:41

It's not in my top three, yeah.

Shaun McKenna 14:42

So Matt's verdict on anime is that this isn't quite a golden age, but it's more of like an age of plenty. So let me start by asking all of you, do any of you find that when you're consuming Japanese entertainment, you're more likely to be checking out anime rather than films or TV series with real life actors?

Alyssa Smith 15:02

For me this year, the two Japanese films that I saw in theaters were anime films. So, I definitely think that's the case. So I saw “The Boy and the Heron,” and I also saw “Blue Giant,” which is a film about three young men, they're aspiring jazz musicians in Tokyo, and I'm really glad I got to see it in theaters because I'm not sure the film would have affected me as much if I'd seen it at home on my laptop. So for me, and probably a lot of people who watched it, the soundtrack really makes the film. It was composed by a jazz pianist, Hiromi Uehara, and it was really exciting and vibrant and just super memorable. So the storyline is a bit cheesy but it is very satisfying. And you know, it's about having big dreams and wanting to succeed as musicians but also having this camaraderie with people who are aspiring for the similar things that you are. So “Blue Giant” was actually, it was a sleeper hit here. So much so that the film was re-edited and given a second release.

Thu-Huong Ha 16:04

I would like to see that before it leaves theaters.

Shaun McKenna 16:06

Do either of you have an answer to the question?

Thu-Huong Ha 16:09

I do not like watching live-action Japanese entertainment, it is difficult to watch. I think the acting style that's prevalent here is not my preferred acting style. It’s very... it's like they're trying to be in an anime?

Alyssa Smith 16:24

Well, you might feel like they're acting like they're in an anime because a lot of live-action films are actually adaptations of manga and anime.

Thu-Huong Ha 16:33

I do think that's why, yeah. I just find, like, the way of emoting not very believable or good.

Owen Ziegler 16:39

Yeah, I think that's why I've just kind of stopped watching anime altogether.

Thu-Huong Ha 16:43

Oh, anime?

Owen Ziegler 16:45

Yeah. Because of what you're talking about, that kind of over-the-top emoting I'd probably tend more towards live-action, Japanese entertainment?

Shaun McKenna 16:54

Oh, so you’re going the other way?

Owen Ziegler 16:55

I’m going the other way. But not drama, not, kind of, not these, these presentations of fiction. One show on Netflix that I've really been enjoying is, in Japanese is “Tōkusabaibā!,” “Last One Standing,” in Japanese, it’s just this collection of standup comedians, who just kind of take turns telling these funny monologues, where it's kind of the same thing that you're talking about Thu, where it does have a Japanese sensibility to it that, especially with humor, is not gonna resonate with me so much, but some of them do and it's been really enjoyable. So, I highly recommend that one.

Shaun McKenna 17:30

Right, maybe that's one we can check out then, over the break. Not quite anime but still not human, “Godzilla” is doing really well overseas, or should I say “Godzilla Minus One.”

Alyssa Smith 17:42

Yeah, it's kind of taken over the box office in the U.S. It came out on Dec. 1 in North America. And since then, it has become the highest-grossing Japanese live-action film, bringing in just over $25 million after its second weekend, which is pretty impressive. And so far, it's grossed over $51 million globally.

Shaun McKenna 18:06

That's interesting, Japanese film is having kind of, like, a good month to round off the year.

Alyssa Smith 18:12

We're really ending the year on a high note for Japanese culture.

Shaun McKenna 18:15

Well, Mark Schilling is one of the foremost authorities on Japanese film as well as one of our critics. And he'll be writing about the various movies that won awards this year in a piece that's coming out ... when's that coming out?

Alyssa Smith 18:27

This Friday.

Shaun McKenna 18:28

This Friday. OK, but before we get off the topic of film, I did want to get everyone's thoughts on the other big film story of the year: “Barbenheimer.” Who wants to start with that?

Alyssa Smith 18:38

I want to hear Owen's thoughts.

Owen Ziegler 18:40

Finally, men get to weigh in on the issue! Yeah, yeah, “Barbie” was fantastic. I didn't really go in with super high expectations, I'm not really sure why but even from the first shot the call back to “2001.” It just, it was fantastic, took you for a ride, didn't really let go until the end.

Shaun McKenna 18:59

Did you wear pink?

Owen Ziegler 19:00

I didn't. But probably over 75% of the people in the theater did, showed up in cowboy hats and pink onesies and the whole getup guys and girls.

Alyssa Smith 19:08

That's what I really enjoyed about “Barbie.” It was such an event. I went with a group of maybe, like, 12 people or something like that? And most of us came in pink.

Shaun McKenna 19:18

So in Japan, there was some concern that “Oppenheimer,” which is kind of like the sober yin to “Barbie’s” neon pink yang, wasn't going to be released in Japan. Alyssa, can you update us on what's going on with that?

Alyssa Smith 19:30

So while the whole “Barbenheimer” craze was going on overseas, people in Japan had a very different reaction towards combining this very lighthearted film with a biopic about, you know, the father of the atomic bomb, for obvious reasons, I think. So, this summer, there was the hashtag, #noBarbenheimer that started trending. And it wasn't clear whether the film was going to be released in Japan. I think one of the reasons that the film was delayed and coming out here was because its release date abroad was July 21, which falls really close to the anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. But Mark Schilling, our film critic, he wrote back in July that Japanese distributors, they tend to wait until the fall or winter months to release films by big name directors with major awards potential. So it's not entirely surprising that they've kind of pushed back the release date. And I think earlier this week, or last week, it was finally announced that the film has a Japanese distributor. And it's going to be coming out sometime next year.

Shaun McKenna 20:40

Probably right in time for the Oscars.

Alyssa Smith 20:42

Right, exactly.

Owen Ziegler 20:43

Are you guys interested in going to see “Oppenheimer" or did “Barbie” do it for you?

Thu-Huong Ha 20:47

I only saw “Barbie.” I'm not gonna see “Oppenheimer," yeah.

Alyssa Smith 20:50

I think I'll watch “Oppenheimer” at home. It doesn't need to be a cinema experience for me.

Shaun McKenna 20:54

I say the same thing, and this is actually a conversation we had on last year's podcast. But it's a long movie, isn't it?

Owen Ziegler 21:01

Very long.

Shaun McKenna 21:02

Yeah, so, I don't know, I'm just kind of not feeling three-hour-plus movies these days. So “Napoleon” and “Oppenheimer,” we’ll do that at home.

So last year, we had Alyssa and Thu on Deep Dive discussing books. What was the big book news this year?

Alyssa Smith 21:24

I think it has to be Haruki Murakami’s new full-length novel. It's his first one in six years. It came out in April, and there was a lot of hype ahead of it. So it's 1,200 Japanese manuscript pages. But I don't know if it was worth the wait. What do you think, Thu?

Thu-Huong Ha 21:42

I don't know. I haven't read it yet.

Shaun McKenna 21:44

So actually, we had Daniel Morales on the podcast before it was released, and he's kind of a Murakami fan. And I just was watching his Twitter feed as he got through the book. And he really didn't like it.

Thu-Huong Ha 21:58

Yeah, I think a lot of people were disappointed with it. First of all, I mean, there was a lot of hype, because it had been a long time since his last release. And then it was also a repurposing of an earlier premise and an earlier work from very early in his career. And as I said, I didn't read it, because I don't want to, but I did write a piece about the early reviews both the critics takes and the readers ratings.

Shaun McKenna 22:26

Where they more on side with what Daniel was saying?

Thu-Huong Ha 22:30

Yes, so they were just confused. The plot was very confusing, and I think people felt very happy to be immersed in his kind of confusing world, right kind of echoed, I think criticisms of “The Boy and the Heron” actually, is that fans were like, “Yay, it's him.” And then other people were like, “This is confusing as hell like, I don't know what's going on.”

Shaun McKenna 22:53


Alyssa Smith 22:53

Well, there were a few other established writers that had disappointing releases this year. Right Thu?

Thu-Huong Ha 22:59

Hmmm, yes.

Shaun McKenna 23:00

We're gonna have to get the sad horn out again, from last week.

Thu-Huong Ha 23:04

Yeah, so this year, Osama Dazai’s “The Flowers of Buffoonery” came out in English for the first time. It was originally published in 1935 but it was kind of like spin-off prequel to “No Longer Human,” which is like his massively famous work. And I reviewed it and, you know, I thought it was all right. It didn't really have the narrative ambiguity of “No Longer Human,” which made it really interesting, was lacking in this one. I also reviewed Yu Miri’s “The End of August,” which was originally serialized in the early 2000s, in both Japanese and in Korean. She's the author of “Tokyo Ueno Station.” And it was a massive undertaking for both writer and reader. Kind of a slog, I thought, very hard to follow. Very brutal, let's say.

Shaun McKenna 23:57

Brutal in terms of, like, having to read it or brutal in terms of content?

Thu-Huong Ha 24:01

Excellent question. Oh, it was very, yeah, it was a very violent read.

Shaun McKenna 24:08

Thu’s library was like a slaughter scene this year.

Thu-Huong Ha 24:12

Wasn't great. Yeah, I was really disappointed as well, Banana Yoshimoto, who's the author of “Kitchen,” which is a big, big bestseller, she also had a book from 1988 be published in English for the first time called “The Premonition” and it was just a wah-wah for me. Just very saccharin, sickly sweet, didn't really understand the point.

Shaun McKenna 24:37

Do you think this is a bad year, or do you think this is a bunch of kind of like writers who were able to score hits in the past who maybe have just lost something?

Alyssa Smith 24:46

Well, it seems to me like publishers have realized how popular Japanese fiction is or Japanese literature is, and so they've gone back to look at the past works of established writers and they're bringing out new translations, but that doesn't mean it's like the best work of these writers.

Shaun McKenna 25:03

Oh, OK, OK.

Thu-Huong Ha 25:05

Yeah, they're kind of like mining for... for content, exactly.

Shaun McKenna 25:09

Right, right.

Alyssa Smith 25:10

So, you have told us about the disappointing reads but was there anything you liked?

Thu-Huong Ha 25:16

I did really like an author that we reviewed in the paper this year, who isn't Japanese but her book talks about the Japanese occupation. It's called “The Great Reclamation” by Rachel Heng, and she's Singaporean. And she writes about, it's a love story that takes place in Singapore over its rapid modernization and like massive political upheaval. And I thought it was really, really beautifully written. And I learned a lot about Singapore and Singaporean history. I thought that was a really good addition to fiction that's coming out of Asia right now. So we're having a big swell of popularity from Asian American writers. But this is from this is from Asia itself, which I really enjoyed.

Shaun McKenna 25:55

Alyssa, did you have any books that were on your radar this year?

Alyssa Smith 25:59

Well, there is one book that I haven't read yet that I want to, hopefully over the holiday break. It's called “Hunchback” by Saou Ichikawa. She recently won the Akutagawa Literary Award and she's the first writer with a physical disability to win this award. And I read Thu’s review of it and it seems really darkly funny.

Shaun McKenna 26:20

Did you read it?

Thu-Huong Ha 26:22

Yeah, I did. Listeners should note that it's not out in English yet. But you can read our review in The Japan Times, I don't know if you've heard of it. I enjoyed it. It was gross. It was gross, gross, gross. In what way? Well, I don't want to give too many spoilers, but it's very seedy at times, and very bodily and some sketchy characters.

Shaun McKenna 26:49

Owen, you've been pretty quiet in this conversation.

Owen Ziegler 26:52

I have. No books this year, not as many as I should have been reading, but for good reason. In gaming, this has been one of the best years in recent memory. Yeah, if you've heard of Metacritic, it's kind of what Rotten Tomatoes is to movies, Metacritic is for games. And 2023 has had 25 titles rated 90 or higher and you have to go back 20 years to 2003 to get to that level, and the average is about 15 titles, rated 90 or higher. We’re talking about going back to when the original Call of Duty was released Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire, Legend Zelda Windwaker. So it's really been a banner year.

Shaun McKenna 27:37

So what were the big games this year?

Owen Ziegler 27:38

So the consensus game of the year is Balder’s Gate 3, it's an action-adventure RPG, inspired by Dungeons and Dragons. It's really captured this kind of multiyear groundswell of interest in D&D, that kind of really gained steam during the pandemic, and people really getting into D&D on online groups. But in terms of Japanese studios, they've kind of had a great year as well as with Street Fighter 6, Super Mario Bros. Wonder, Resident Evil 4 remake, Metroid Prime remaster, but if it wasn't for Balder’s Gate then maybe the game of the year would have been Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. And Thu, you're in the middle of a playthrough of Tears of the Kingdom, right?

Thu-Huong Ha 28:17

Yes, it has been months of sustained Zelda play.

Owen Ziegler 28:21

What has kept you coming back to it?

Thu-Huong Ha 28:23

I actually at this point, now I'm starting to see the end and I do not want it to end so I'm, I've actually slowed down a bit to just kind of like, look for more mushrooms.

Owen Ziegler 28:34

Because that's kind of the magic of Tears of the Kingdom, right, which is why Breath of the Wild was so successful before, right? Zelda has been so formulaic for so long, but these two games really give you that sense of wonder and exploration.

Thu-Huong Ha 28:46

I couldn't believe you finished it so fast.

Owen Ziegler 28:48

Yeah, well, I'm staying up until 5 a.m. most nights will do it for you. Oh, yeah. Just for journalism, no other ulterior motive. But it's not perfect, right?

Thu-Huong Ha 28:58

No, well, I felt like the two games were quite similar. In that kind of disappointing way.

Owen Ziegler 29:03

Which is yeah, it's kind of remarkable that Tears at the Kingdom was able to use the same setting with a lot of the same characters, but still give that sense of wonder. Right? But what do you do after this? Do you make another Breath of the Wild?

Shaun McKenna 29:18

I think Thu would be happy if there's just more mushrooms to look for. Is that what I'm getting?

Thu-Huong Ha 29:22

Yeah, there's like, if I unlocked another level of mushrooms ... that’ll be great.

Shaun McKenna 29:27

That sounds like the Super Mario/Zelda hybrid that we need, the crossover.

Owen Ziegler 29:31

Well, maybe there's an opportunity to do that in the Zelda movie.

Shaun McKenna 29:35

Right? The long awaited Zelda movie.

Owen Ziegler 29:38

Live-action Zelda, which, I don't know how to feel about.

Thu-Huong Ha 29:39

Yeah, skepticism.

Shaun McKenna 29:43

I mean, Last of Us worked.

Owen Ziegler 29:45

Last of Us worked, but, I mean, Last of Us was always a story-driven video game. The gameplay was not revolutionary or anything. What makes Zelda and what has always made Zelda work is the gameplay. The story is, I'm sorry to say as a massive Zelda fan, you It's always been kind of take it or leave it. It's you know, hero's journey, slay the demon, you know, rescue the princess. Yeah. And Link never — almost never, I should say — talks in the video game, which is gonna have to be the first thing that changes in a live-action Zelda movie, right?

Thu-Huong Ha 30:16

What if it doesn't? Can they pull off a movie where he just doesn't speak?

Owen Ziegler 30:20

If I was put in the director's chair, if I was given the keys, by Nintendo...

Shaun McKenna 30:22

Yeah, put it down right now!

Owen Ziegler 30:25

I would make a “Barbie”-esque Zelda movie. So you take a “Barbie,” which is, you know, this cultural institution, and you turn it into a great movie that pokes fun at itself. That's self-referential, right and just has a good time with it. I think with Zelda franchise that's been going on for decades and decades, you can't just tell a straightforward story. It's going to let so many people down. It's going to upset the diehards who want you know, a heartache. It's going to bore casuals, who don't know the first thing about Zelda. But if you really have fun with it, and you make these inside jokes to, you know, make the gamers laugh and you tell a funny story, to interest people who have no interest in Zelda otherwise, which was kind of me coming to “Barbie,” I think it's going to be a good time for all, right?

Thu-Huong Ha 31:12

“The Lego Movie” did that. Yeah, I mean, turning something really boring into something really, like political and satirical.

Owen Ziegler 31:14

But does Nintendo have the courage?

Thu-Huong Ha 31:25

Oh, no. It’s gonna be boring. Or it’s gonna be serious, self-serious for sure.

Owen Ziegler 31:27

It’s gonna be Timothee Chalamet or Tom Holland as Link.

Thu-Huong Ha 31:29

What about Michael Cera? He's blond.

Owen Ziegler 31:33

Michael Cera? Tingle.

Shaun McKenna 31:34

Well, I think Link is gonna look really good in pink. Final question, to end this off. I wanted to ask you all what your high point was this year? Alyssa, let's start with you.

Alyssa Smith 31:44

My high point? My brother got married this summer and I officiated the wedding. It was a lot of fun, yeah. And then after that, I went to the Canary Islands and learned how to surf.

Thu-Huong Ha 31:57

Were you good?

Alyssa Smith 31:58


Owen Ziegler 32:00

Uh, mine was probably, I went to Gion Matsuri earlier this year and while I was in Kyoto, just kind of going to and from the festival each day, I was actually at Kiyomizu-dera for the 10th time or whatever it was, where it happened to make a reservation at Yamamoto Menzo. It's this soba shop in eastern Kyoto. They only take day-of reservations. So I had to get a late lunch. And then I had to go to another restaurant that I've had reservations for two hours later. But it was incredible, one of the best soba meals I've ever had highly recommended.

Thu-Huong Ha 32:36

I spent a week on a boat in Indonesia just diving off of it.

Shaun McKenna 32:42

OK, an actual Deep Dive, a literal Deep Dive.

Thu-Huong Ha 32:46

Yes. A literal Deep Dive. Thank you, Shaun. I've only gotten into diving in the last like year. What I really like about it is that you just really can't overthink when you're down there because you use up your air too fast. So you really it really forces you to focus and like monotask and obviously what your monotasking is insane and beautiful, so, yeah.

Shaun McKenna 33:09

Right on. Well, Alyssa, Owen, Thu, thank you very much for coming on the final Deep Dive of the year. Happy New Year to all of you.

My thanks again to Alyssa, Thu, Owen and Matt. I'm joined now by Deep Dive producer Dave Cortez. Hey, Dave.

Dave Cortez 33:27

Hey, Shaun.

Shaun McKenna 33:28

So we ended that conversation by asking everyone their high points of the year. Dave, I think my high point was working with you on this podcast.

Dave Cortez 33:35

That's really sweet. Well, actually, I think both our high points have yet to come because we're both heading home for the holidays.

Shaun McKenna 33:42

That's true. That means that Deep Dive will be taking a holiday break and will return in mid-January. In the meantime, there's a lot to tide you over on our website. I mentioned that we are currently in the middle of doing a bunch of year-end wraps, but one story I wanted to mention was by Kanako Takahara, not a year-end wrap but kind of an explanation of what is currently going on with this big political funding scandal that's engulfing Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s Liberal Democratic Party. Something, Dave, I'm sure we'll be talking about one more back from the break.

Dave Cortez 34:13

I can't wait.

Shaun McKenna 34:14

Neither can I. Until then, thanks again to Dave, our colleagues at The Japan Times, particularly Jason Jenkins who was called back to the News Desk from the podcast halfway through the year, and thank you to everyone listening — time is at a premium and we appreciate you spending it with us.

Until next time, Deep Dive is produced by Dave Cortez, our outgoing music is by Oscar Boyd and our theme music is by Kazuto Okawa, the musician known as LLLL. Happy New Year to you all, yoi otoshi o, and podtsukaresama.

Dave Cortez 34:33