Monday, July 24, 2017

Baccano! 1931 The Grand Punk Railroad: Local

Baccano! was a rare find for me to stumble over in anime. I watched all 12 episodes (and the 3 bonus ones) in about three days in Japanese, and then I rewatched it immediately afterwards in English. While I often do my second viewing in English, usually the second viewing, if it happens at all, it's months or years down the line. Baccano! scratches a very particular itch I have though.

Namely, period piece mafia and magic. In this case, the magic part is centered around alchemists and immortals.

For a good long time I despaired of ever reading the rest of the Baccano! series. The anime only covered the four books, and the first one had been published in 2003, so it wasn't the hot new stuff anymore. But I loved the setting, the nutty characters, and especially the way the anime made everything happen at once. I was crazy jealous of the writers on that show. They managed to braid together three different time periods across four books so that revelations in one time had an impact on the viewer's understanding in another, even if chronologically they were taking place earlier.

Fortunately, though it took thirteen years, Yen Press picked up the Baccano! series for translation and I've slowly been grabbing the volumes. They haven't passed the threshold of the anime yet, but I'm hoping they're successful enough to do so. Amazon has at least volume 6 set up so far and they're very lovely hardbacks.

Author Ryohgo Narita's work is not quite as crazy as the anime. He does do incredibly short scenes from time to time so the reader knows everyone's positioning before all hell breaks loose, but each of the three main time periods in the anime is one book (with the exception of the Flying Pussyfoot storyline in 1931, which is two books) rather than jumping across time periods in the same book.

That's not to say everything is told linearly, he loves to jump around, but the jumps are more localized.

I'm currently in the middle of Baccano! 1931 The Grand Punk Railroad: Local, which is the second book and the start of the two-part journey of the Flying Pussyfoot train. In pure Ryohgo Narita fashion, it starts with the epilogue to give the reader a viewpoint of the two minor characters who have clean up the mess everyone else has left behind, and has five prologues to set up all the different factions that are about to get involved.

Some of it is over the top ridiculous, but that's part of the appeal. If the premise is that four different parties (five if you consider the hidden character in the fifth prologue) board the Flying Pussyfoot train, each with their own agenda, then from there it's just a matter of watching all the chaos play out. All the parties are miscreants of some kind or another and naturally fall into conflict.

But part of the fun is in the details that slip in.

The thing is, Ryohgo Narita is a Japanese author writing for a Japanese audience, so he does spend some time explaining things that probably come off as pretty obvious to an American reader, but then at the same time, it's clear that Narita has done his research and he likes the time period. One of the characters, while beating someone to a pulp, compares himself unfavorably to Jack Dempsey, who was popular boxer in the 1920s.

Narita isn't blind to the fact that there were minorities all over the place during the time either. Though there aren't any in the main cast, unless they show up after the anime, there are multiple Chinese supporting characters and Jacuzzi Splot's gang includes a Mexican member.

There a good line where two of the side characters (one Chinese, the other Irish, and totally on board with each other) take a minor character to task on the train for belittling them as immigrants. While manhandling him out of the dining car, they tell him that one half of the transcontinental railroad was built by the disenfranchised Irish and the other half by the disenfranchised Chinese, so between the two of them, they have a claim to everything on the railroad, including that guy's life. (And considering they're also gang members, that's not a point the guy really wants to be arguing about.)

I doubt Jon and Fang will ever be regulars in the series, but this totally made me laugh. It's a nice bit of history that not only educates the readers (because I expect the average Japanese person wouldn't know that), but also defines the characters. It's a pity this part never made it into the anime.

I'm about halfway through so far, and then I hope to move on to the next volume. The series isn't always realistic, but when it isn't, it's usually in the service of fun so I'm inclined to forgive. It's clear when Narita is doing his research so if he wants to start with off with a three way battle between cultists, a mafia gang, and a band of delinquents while throwing in a couple of delusional ne'er-do-wells, I'm not going to argue. It's half the fun.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Some Thoughts on Persona 5 - No Major Spoilers

I've been slowly working my way through Persona 5, and it makes me realize just how long it's been since I've dug my way through a good JRPG. Part of it is because the medieval fantasy JRPG formula went stale on me a long time ago, but also because they haven't evolved much from their roots; talk to people in a new town, buy new equipment, go into the new dungeon, and repeat as you take a tour of the world.

A good plot certainly helps too.

The Persona series has always been different for taking place in a contemporary setting and that you don't jet around the world. Aside from a field trip, you probably won't even leave town. The third game in particular laid the groundwork for successive installments. It implemented the current system of balancing dungeon delving with having a successful life as a high schooler.

Having the systems feed into one another was a stroke of genius. Bonuses earned for the social aspects of the protagonist's life, apply to the creation of more powerful personas for combat, and money earned from dungeon delving in turn funds the protagonist's social activities.

It introduced a unique playstyle, and rather than visiting new towns, there's just one main town that actually looks like a town with different neighborhoods and districts. As the calendar year passes, dialogue changes, the store offerings change, making for one really good, living location instead of many lesser ones.

And because of its contemporary setting, the Persona games aren't about fighting nations or overthrowing some empire. The end bosses are typically some supernatural entity that most of the world is completely oblivious to.

Persona 5 adds something new though, that I find particularly invigorating.

It makes everyone a thief.

Usually in JRPGs, the thief is a weird class. Their combat skills are mediocre, their rate of stealing items is poor, and it's hard to find any justification for putting them in a party other than because the player likes thieves or wants to steal a specific high level item. (Occasionally they might class promote into a ninja or something that makes them useful, but vanilla thieves tend to suck.)

Specially, Persona 5 makes the entire party a group of phantom thieves and then completely runs with it. All the cool stuff you expect a gentleman thief to do, like leaving calling cards, and doing bold and daring heists, are things that the protagonists accomplish while the player is at the controls. And you can see that the development team had a lot of fun with it. You know how in movies like Ocean's Eleven every member of the team has a job? There's one heist where the party does that, where they split up and everyone's got their own thing to do at the same time.

In most JRPGs, if there are visible enemies, it's a case of you see them, they see you, and one of the two parties charges forward and attacks (maybe even both). But in Persona 5, you're thieves, so you can hide behind objects and ambush your enemies. This is crazy fun and feels like it rewards players who actually act out the part of a thief since ambushing gives everyone a chance to attack before their enemies in the first round.

The dungeons are built specifically to have gimmicks for the player to maneuver around, whether it's something to hide behind, infrared sensors to slide underneath, or air vents to crawl through. And though I'm calling them gimmicks, they don't feel cheap at all, because they're there to sell the fantasy of being elite phantom thieves and they do!

Rather than simply have treasure chests all over the place (though there are quite a few), the player also has the ability to loot certain items that are part of the scenery, so grabbing vases and sculptures is desirable, since the player can sell those items later.

When you exploit the weaknesses of all enemies present in a battle, you enter a Hold Up, which features all members of the party surrounding their enemies with their guns out, and you can actually demand for money or items in order to let them go.

There are so many nice touches, from the costuming, to the code names, and even the annoying nights I had my protagonist working on making lockpicks so I'd have them ready to go the next night we went into a dungeon.

I can't remember the last JRPG I played that's worked so hard at selling a particular fantasy, and probably the thing I like the most about it, is that there are plot reasons behind a lot of what they do. The characters don't have crazy costumes just because they happen to like cosplay, just like they aren't sending calling cards just because they want attention. When the plot and the game design support each other, it really makes something fun.

I'm at the end of July (in game) now, so I'm still less than halfway through, but I'm looking forward to the rest.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Preparation Tips for Giving a Talk

Last weekend I gave a talk on how and why to write short stories to a local writer group. Though I have been on several panels at conventions, it's much rarer for me to give a solo talk. In fact, this was only the second time I had done so.

It's a much different animal from a panel, because I can't bounce off other people's ideas and I know if I stop talking for whatever reason, it's unlikely someone else will jump in to fill the silence. My first time giving a talk was extremely nerve-wracking, even though I had taken a lot of notes and brought them up to the podium with me. I knew better than to talk while reading off the paper (head pointed down at podium is bad), but I was incredibly nervous, and I know that I ended up speaking a lot faster than I meant to. In turn, that made my talk go faster.

I don't remember at this point, how much I had rehearsed for that first talk, but my second is still fresh in memory, so I can talk what I did to prepare for it, because I did much better this time.

My talk was to be focused around how and why a writer should write short stories. I knew that the group had never had a short story writer speak to them before, so I specifically geared my talk with the assumption that most of the audience was coming from a novel-writing background. I would have 45 minutes, and then there would be time for questions afterwards. The organizer who invited me said it would be okay if I ended a little early, but I didn't want to. I wanted to do this as practice and a character building exercise for myself.

1) Outline in Four Parts

The first thing I did was outline my talk. Given that it was planned for 45 minutes, I figured I would break the entire thing up into four topics, roughly ten minutes each. I decided they would be:

  • Why write a short story?
  • What do short stories excel at?
  • How to write a short story
  • Getting a short story published

After deciding on my four main topics, I proceeded to add notes underneath each heading so I had an idea of what to bring up in relation to the topic. I decided that it wouldn't be critical for me to bring up each individual bullet point, but these were related subjects that I could use to illustrate the answers to the proposed questions or illustrate the hows of the second half.

2) Time the Talk Without Directly Reading

After I figured I'd populated the outline enough, I started talking about my first topic. I allowed myself the chance to glance at the outline, but I could not read in depth. The idea was that I was always speaking, and I let myself go off the rails if it felt like it made sense to do so. I knew what my second topic was going to be, so if I got too far afield, I knew to reel myself in and redirect.

I timed each of the four topics independently of each other. And it turned out that in my first run, the first topic was 8 minutes, the second 4 minutes, the third 8 minutes, and the fourth 16 minutes. Combined with my 2 minute introduction, that ended up being around 38 minutes, which was not a bad place to start at all.

And some of my rambling while attempting to keep myself speaking, actually turned out to be useful, and I added those to the notes.

3) Adjust the Outline

Since I knew how long the different parts were, it made adjusting the length of the talk easier, because I could shore up individual parts without adding random padding at the end in an effort to say more. At this point I also realized that my introduction was only an introduction to the talk, but didn't identify myself or my credentials, so I retroactively added that, and got a couple more minutes added in.

When the day of the talk came, I arrived to find that the music stand that was supposed to be supplied in place of a podium wasn't tall enough to be used while I was standing. We tried putting it on the table, but then it was too tall and would blow the view of people around me.

I did the courageous thing and opted not to use the music stand at all, and laid my outline flat on the table in front of me. This meant that I really could not read off of it without obviously talking to the table.

But you know? It turned all right.

The audience was great and whenever I started to lose myself, I would pause, take a glance, and then only speak again after I looked up. I could feel I was more relaxed this time. I wasn't talking as fast. And once I finished, there were plenty of questions. So many questions! I wasn't used to this, even on panels.

I think we wrapped up about 70-75 minutes after we started, so it was very good considering that the talk itself was only supposed to be 45. I didn't have a chance to check what my actual talk time concluded at, but considering how long we were there, I think it was likely close.

I was pretty nervous leading up to the talk, but I told myself to do it, because it would be good me, and it was.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Anime Talk: Attack on Titan Season 2

You knew this was coming right? One last chance to talk about the Attack on Titan anime before Season 2 becomes a distant memory.

My non-spoilery review of Attack on Titan: Season 2 will be up at Diabolical Plots later, probably next month, so if you don't want to be spoiled, you check out my thoughts over there. What this post is about is the biggest thing I couldn't discuss.

Obviously, there will be anime spoilers, but I will refrain from manga spoilers.

I already talked about the earlier than expected manga flashbacks involving Ymir and Marco, and I still find those out of place.

But what I'd like to talk about here is Reiner and Bertholdt.

This is the season where the two of them become prominent characters. While they have always been around, they weren't part of the main trio of Eren, Armin, and Mikasa. Reiner did have some good moments the first season though, distinguishing himself early on as someone Eren wanted to emulate and being a big brother figure by offering to carry Armin's pack during training. He came out ranked #2 in the 104th Training Corps, and we're reminded of that when he faces the Female Titan during the 57th expedition. (Of course, we know now that it's unlikely Annie was trying to kill Reiner when she caught him.)

Bertholdt is a more passive character, so it's easy to forget that he actually came out ranked #3, so he's quite the capable fighter, but he didn't have any stand out moments in the first season. Most people knew him as Reiner's buddy, and some people (like my brother) figured he was one of those characters hanging around waiting for the appropriate Titan to stop by and eat him.

This season we find out that the two of them are the Armored and Colossal Titans respectively, which means that they are responsible for the loss of thousands of lives caused by the destruction of the gate at Wall Maria. Their arrival five years is the reason that protagonist Eren is on a rampaging path of defeating every Titan in existence.

While the audience was prepared to discover more Titans among the cast after Annie Leonhart was revealed as the Female Titan, Reiner and Bertholdt being the culprits was a surprise. Annie was a loner and we had reason to suspect her due to animation cues and a mistake on her part where she reacts to Eren's nickname, which only other members of the 104th Training Corps would know. She fit the profile we would expect of an enemy agent; capable, a loner, and working her way towards the powerful people in the interior.

Reiner and Bertholdt were meanwhile bleeding along with the rest of the Corps. When we meet them again in Season 2 they're among the unarmed recruits racing to warn villages of the sudden appearance of Titans. They get trapped in Utgard Castle along with their fellow trainees and participate in every way one would expect from an ordinary comrade. Reiner even saves Conny's life and is willing to sacrifice himself for the safety of everyone else.

These aren't the actions of a traitor. And we do get some reasoning for that later.

But the nutshell summary is that despite everything, we learn that Reiner and Bertholdt are not inherently bad people. They are doing, and have done, awful things for which they can never be forgiven, and they know that. Poor Bertholdt's face when his former comrades try to talk him down is heartbreaking. He owns up to everything and doesn't even try to justify his actions.

The two of them (three if you include Annie) have been living undercover for five years. Considering their ages, they have spent their entire teenage lives pretending to be who they weren't, all for the sake of their mission. And for three of those five years they slept in the same barracks as the people they are now betraying. It was impossible for them to not feel a kinship with their fellow trainees.

It's a hell of a burden to be carrying, and I'm not surprised that Reiner eventually breaks beneath it, both in his capacity to delude himself into thinking he really is a soldier and not an invading warrior, and how he eventually tells Eren flat out that he's the Armored Titan and he wants Eren to come with him. From his perspective, wouldn't it be so much easier if Eren voluntarily went with them so he and Bertholdt could stop pretending?

We still don't know what the stakes are for them and why the deaths of thousands is worth it in service of their mission, despite any guilt they might feel, but Season 2 really made me care about these two. You would think that someone willing to condemn thousands to a violent death, being alive by Titans, would be a cruel person, and the series intentionally goes out of the way to make Reiner and Bertholdt sympathetic. I'm fond of good characters who do bad things, and the two of them are prime candidates for that.

Monday, June 19, 2017

So I Saw Wonder Woman This Weekend

I wasn't sure I would when the movie was first announced. I didn't grow up with Wonder Woman in either live action TV or animated form. The live action was before my time, and the Justice League animated show was on cable, which my family didn't have.

I mostly thought of Wonder Woman as one of those silly superheroes running around with a flag for a costume. She wasn't the only one, but she was certainly among the most prominent. I didn't know anything about her personality or why people liked her so much other than she was the most prominent female superhero who wasn't the distaff counterpart of a preexisting male one. Though I suppose that in itself made her worthwhile.

One thing sold me on seeing the movie, and it's not what would do it for people. Because I am a World War I nut.

When I saw the first trailer with Wonder Woman stepping out into No Man's Land, I knew I had to see this movie. I love the complexity of the first world war, and how it's not a simple good guys vs. bad guys, which made it an interesting setting for a superhero movie. And there are precious few stories featuring women combatants in World War I. That it was a woman charging out there into No Man's Land meant a lot to me.

So it's a little funny now hearing from so many people that it's the best part.

I'm glad people love it, but I didn't expect that something that sold me before the movie even came out is now considered one of the best parts, because it's not something that uniquely had to be done by Wonder Woman. It's just something that spoke to me.

I've long wanted a good World War I movie (pref PG-13 because I can't take live action violence when it has a lot of gore/blood). That it turned out be a superhero movie hasn't bothered me in the slightest.

It turns out that Diana's optimism and faith in humanity works perfectly for a war with no true villain as she believes that the Germans will stop fighting if Ares is slain. Though she is not entirely correct in her initial view of human morality, she comes to understand that the morality of an individual is left to that individual. Humanity as a whole isn't monolithically good or bad.

Though Wonder Woman isn't a perfect movie, it doesn't need to be. It's one of the best superhero movies I've seen and none of the others were perfect either.

And that charge into No Man's Land is going to stick with me for a long time.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Favorite Fictional Commanders

I haven't written one myself, largely because I haven't gotten to the point where I'm comfortable juggling an ensemble cast, but in honor of Attack on Titan's Erwin Smith and his valor in the most recent episode, I figured I'd run through a few of my favorite fictional commanders.

They're not leaders of countries necessarily, but likely leaders of soldiers. These are the people that if I was a kid again, I'd say "I want to be like them when I grow up!"

Interestingly, I could not come up with any commanders from novels, so the ones below are all from animation or games. I'm not sure why that is, but I suspect it might be because a lot of military fantasy and science fiction is pretty gritty, and I tend to not idealize those commanders as much, though there is certainly one gritty commander on this list!

Optimus Prime (Transformers)

He is my ur-example largely because of the age at which I was introduced to him as voiced by Peter Cullen (and seriously, bringing Peter Cullen back was the best thing the Michael Bay movies ever did).

Optimus Prime cares about the soldiers beneath him, but is willing to make unpopular decisions if it's the right thing to do. I liked that he was always level-headed, never irrational, and most importantly, he could admit when he was wrong. You got the feeling you could trust him, even if he was a giant robot from another planet.

I don't think that I ever viewed him as a father or big brother figure, even in universe, but he was cool character to look up to and my favorite out of all the 80s Transformers. I even had his toy.

Commander Hawkins (Voltron)

Most people are not going to remember Commander Hawkins because he was in the "other" Voltron, the Vehicle Team. It probably didn't hurt that he was also voiced by Peter Cullen, who didn't change his voice much between Prime and Hawkins.

Hawkins was an usual character for me to latch on to as a kid, because he wasn't one of the Voltron pilots. He stayed on the command ship and gave orders, so he would be the guy the team would argue against when they wanted to follow their hearts rather than his instructions.

But even if they didn't like what he had to say, you got the impression that Hawkins was fair, and he actually pranked his disobedient team leaders once after a mission that only succeeded because they didn't listen to him. They were willing to take any punishment he was willing to give them, and the punishment they thought was coming, was actually more of a reward.

Robin (Dark Wizard)

If Hawkins is obscure, then Robin is downright forgotten. Dark Wizard was an old fantasy strategy game for the Sega CD, and Robin was one of four playable army leaders. I loved her for being a kickass female knight in functional armor.

Back then, and even now, it's hard to find games with female protagonists, and here's Robin who serves as knight on horseback with better melee stats than magic ones. This lady was all about leading her army into battle to retake the continent from the titular Dark Wizard.

If she picked up a love interest along the way and agreed to marry in him in the ending, why not. It's a bonus. He asked her to marry him if he won the duel at their victory banquet. She kicked his ass and basically said something like "WTF, did you think I wouldn't like you if you couldn't beat me? I like you anyway, let's get married." Teenage me loved this. (Actual dialogue was much cheesier, but that was the take home message.)

Xander (Fire Emblem Fates)

Depending on which version of the game the player is playing, Xander might never take on a real command role, but along the Birthright storyline, Xander is very much a commander and unfortunately he becomes the enemy one.

I played Conquest first where I totally fell in love with Xander for being my favorite type of knight character, who is stuck between his principals and his duty. As the eldest of the Nohrian royal siblings, he is heir to the throne of Nohr and shoulders the burden of a temperamental, maniacal father as well as the future of his nation. Though not blood-related to the player's avatar, he is adamant that they are a welcome part of his family.

The worst part of starting down the Birthright storyline was turning away from Xander and fighting against him, because I knew that I would have to kill him eventually. When the battle finally happens, Nohr is practically finished and he actually has lower stats than a boss should at that level, because he doesn't actually have the heart to kill the player.

Erwin Smith (Attack on Titan)

Last, but certainly not least, is Commander Erwin Smith from Attack on Titan, who inspired this post. I won't mention anything exclusive from the manga, but Erwin hits all the right respect buttons. He's saddled with the unenviable job of leading the least popular branch of the military into gut-wrenching odds, and yet he throws himself completely into his work.

Nothing gets in Erwin's way. If the best chance to capture an enemy spy involves endangering civilians, he will take it. He might not be happy about it, but if you want a person willing to do anything to ensure the survival of humanity, Erwin's a good pick for the job and his soldiers know that. Erwin can ask the impossible of them and they'll do their best to deliver.

And particularly in the anime, when Erwin bellows for his soldiers to "Dedicate your hearts!" you want to follow the guy into battle, even though you know there's going to be a body count. The opening song for the second season is taken specifically from his words.

Shinzou o sasageyo!

Monday, June 5, 2017

Attack on Titan: Mining Story Bits from the Future

I watched the latest Attack on Titan episode (Episode 35: Children if you're avoiding spoilers), which had some really surprising material that I didn't expect they would include. I know a certain amount of changes are made in adaptations, and Attack on Titan has been no different. Though it follows the manga closely in most respects, the series has had to pad on occasion to make sure that the TV run time is fulfilled.

In most cases, one chapter is equivalent to one episode, but sometimes it does not directly translate because one chapter might be very action heavy or it might be very plot heavy. A plot heavy chapter tends to fill an episode. An action one does not, because while two-page spreads are impressive in manga form, they are generally only a few seconds of animation. The series also had to contend with the fact that it needs this particular story arc to last exactly 12 episodes to comprise Season 2. No one wants to start the next story arc and abruptly end when it's just getting started.

As I watched Season 2 I could see the new bits and bobs tucked in. What had been a bubble of dialogue talking about a past event became a full blown flashback in one episode, and that was fine. Season 1 had similarly added anime-only scenes to fill out the run time and the added scenes have been pretty seamless.

Last week's Episode 34 signaled a bit of change though. It added some stuff that's from two story arcs ahead in the manga, but that was mostly okay, because even though the information was first revealed later in the story, the anime presented it as a flashback in one character's mind. It didn't change anyone else's perception of the past event. It does change the audience's perception, but in a small, abbreviated way. In the manga the scene is a fairly extended flashback, but in the anime it's a few seconds to make it clear that someone's death was not the accident it had appeared to be.

I was surprised to see it, but because it changed very little and showed what was going on in the mind of the character who was remembering, I felt that the payoff for using it was warranted.

Episode 35 does something strange though. And this is where the manga spoilers come in. They'll be discussed past this point.

Ymir gets an extended flashback in the middle of Episode 35. A really extended flashback. Episode 35 animates Chapter 47 of the manga. This flashback gives us her history from Chapter 89 of the manga, which is after the reader's awareness of the world has been expanded.

The reason I found her flashback strange is that it gives us our first glimpse of the world outside the walls. We knew that people existed outside of them because that's where Reiner, Bertholdt, and Annie came from, and we'd seen flashbacks of Annie's childhood, but we had no reason to think it was much different from the world inside the walls.

But the flashback raises a lot of questions the anime is not set up to answer. By the time we get Ymir's history in the manga, we already know about the truth of the outside world. We know that humanity flourishes out there and that the people of the walls are essentially backwater hicks that have been left alone for the past hundred years while being surrounded by their own people, who have been transformed into human-eating titans.

Because of this, learning that Ymir was a figurehead of a cult that worshiped her as the original Ymir reborn, was very easy to swallow. We already know who the original Ymir is and the significance she had to the Eldian people. We already know about the treatment of the Eldians as a minority ethnic group in the country of Marley.

The anime doesn't explain the significant of Ymir's name, but does show the cult, Ymir's capture by Marleyan authorities, and even her being taken to the seawall around Paradis. It stops short of showing the injection that transforms her into a titan, but it's clear that she and the others were transformed as punishment for their religious gathering, which opens up a whole can of worms that the anime is not going to address without getting to the truth that's hiding in Eren's basement, which isn't going to happen for another two story arcs after the current one ends.

My problem with including this, aside from the fact none of it will be addressed for another 20 episodes or more, is that we see far too much. While the cultists and Ymir are dressed shabbily and can pass for the same tech as inside the walls, the Marleyans are very distinct in their uniforms. The flashback shows that there are people outside the walls with the power to turn others into titans, and these people are more modern than the ones inside the walls.

And they're organized. We're not talking about small scattered villages as implied when Reiner and Bertholdt talk about returning to their "hometown." Those uniforms are things the soldiers of a nation wear.

When the series finally gets to the basement I don't think it's going to be a surprise for anime-only viewers that humanity is thriving outside the walls because they'll already be able extrapolate that from the Ymir flashback.

While the flashback does give some payoff by providing insight into Ymir's personality that wasn't there before, it does so at the cost of one of the series biggest reveals, and I don't think that's worth it. The worst part is that it feels they pulled the material in for run time, since there are only a few chapters left in the current story arc and the remainder are action-heavy so they need all the filler they can get.