Shelf Life
Year in Reviews

by Bamboo Dong, Dec 31st 2007

It's the last day of 2007, and what better excuse to take a look back at this year and reminisce about some of the best and worst anime titles that came out. Pulling from this past year of columns, here's some of the volume ones that I personally think deserve to be lauded, and some serious stinkers that have caused me nothing but misery. There were a lot of great series that came out this year, so I apologize in advance for neglecting to mention some of them.

Welcome to Shelf Life – End of the Year Edition.

The best series of 2007 made exclusively for anyone who has ever been a teenager

Over the past few years, I've gotten the chance to gush over many shows, but rarely have I encountered a show that combined so many of my passions into one as this. Simply put, Beck knows how to rock.

The subject of teenaged awkwardness and fitting in with your peers comes up time and time again, but with Beck, there's finally a show that presents that theme just as universally as the theme itself. Koyuki is your classic teenage boy—he feels out of place, his only friend is kind of a lame-ass, he's not very good with the ladies, and he's about as “cool” as a gym uniform. He's spent his whole life shuffling around in the background, until the day he meets Ryosuke, a charismatic guitarist who slowly introduces Koyuki to the joys of rock. Immediately identifying with all the music that's suddenly become a big part of his life, our blossoming teenager is determined to learn the guitar. It may start out with just a few chords here and there, but as he gains confidence, he finds his life changing around him.

Beck is the ultimate microcosm for every teenager's life. Every kid has something in their life that makes them feel like they belong, or something that lets them forget about reality, whether it's music, sports, writing, LARPing, or millions of other things. It's series like this that show you just how universal teen angst is, and what a world of difference it makes when you find something you can be passionate about. Even if you haven't been a teenager in a really long time, there's much to be appreciated about Beck. From its genuine, three-dimensional characters, to its engaging narrative, to the sheer amount of great music, this show is incredible.

The characters in Beck definitely help make the show. There's not a single person that can be boiled down to a simple stereotype. Whether it's the playboy rocker or the hardened swim coach, everyone has his or her own story to tell. Koyuki, especially, is a fascinating character to watch. Even within the span of five episodes, his personal growth is phenomenal, and his determination is certainly admirable.

And the music! This show is a music junky's Holy Grail. Unlike other music-based shows where the same four tracks are used over and over again, Beck doesn't skimp at all. Spanning everything from grunge, to punk, to the blues, and everything in between, the soundtrack is solid. The concert scenes make you feel like you're there, and when the characters sing, you want to hear more. At this moment, it's worth commending the English dub, too; Greg Ayres does a great job of playing Koyuki, and I hope everyone is as blown away by his singing voice as I was. I watched and re-watched that singing contest scene in episode 5 with Koyuki and Maho (Ayres and Brina Palencia) half a dozen times, and every time, I loved “Follow Me” more and more.

This series is really something. It's more than just a story about being a teenager or growing up—it's a story about discovering your passions, and using them to find parts of yourself that you never even knew existed. In the words of the movie Stick It, Beck is “too much rock for one hand.”[TOP]

Drama Bomb and Gripping Angst of the Year Award

I've always been a sucker for packaging. If the cover looks nice and shiny, you can bet that I'll be thinking about it until I can finally tear off the cellophane and shove the disc in my DVD player. With the pastel hues and the clean white backdrop of Funimation's first volume of Rumbling Hearts, I was dying to watch it. (I wasn't so pleased with the back cover—with a show as bitter sweet as this one, is it really necessary to gunk it up with a terrible tagline like, “Betrayal is a Bitch.”? There are appropriate times to be “edgy,” and times when it's completely out of place—this is one such example.)

With this being my first exposure to the series, I was pleasantly surprised. Short story first: I liked what I saw and I want to see more. The series is unlike any other shonen romance I've ever seen before, with its frank portrayal of human tragedy and pain, and it's a refreshing break from your typical boy-meets-girl-gets-slapped-the-end fare. If there was just one aspect I personally didn't like about it, it would be the characters. None of them are particularly likeable, so for me, it was a bit hard to sympathize with any of them.

Takayuki finds himself dating a meek girl named Haruka, who has obviously never picked up any kind of self-help book, for she is neither fun, fearless, nor fierce. Rather, she's the type of gal to constantly burst into tears without provocation, so it's a bit of a wonder that she's one of the main love interests in the story. The other love interest is Mitsuki, a spunky, sporty girl who's been in love with Takayuki for as long as she's known him. Things take a tragic turn for the dramatic when Haruka gets into an accident and falls into a coma. Flash forward three years later—Mitsuki is dating a listless Takayuki, whose life is ripped apart when his former girlfriend finally regains her consciousness, ready to pick things up where she left off. Straight-up drama.

Seldom are there series that deliver so much human emotion in such a short amount of time. With Rumbling Hearts, the pain that the characters experience as they struggle to continue living their lives gives the story a rawness that's hard to pull away from. It barrels through each episode with reckless emotion and plenty of heart, and if you love drama and heartache, then you'll find yourself drawn to this series.[TOP]

Most visually and narratively lush historical series ever made

When I first wrote this review, I was in the middle of an engulfing infatuation with 24, which put me in the perfect mood to watch ADV's newest release, Le Chevalier D'Eon. If the CTU worked for King Louis XV, their adventures would probably pan out something like this. There's action, there's scandal, there's plenty of torture—if you dig movies and shows about crack government special organizations as much as I do, you will be glued to this series.

The story begins when Lia de Beaumont's body washes up on the banks of the Seine, closed inside a coffin marked with the word “Psalms.” A beautiful and beloved woman, her death fuels her brother, D'eon, to embark on a personal quest to uncover the reason for her murder. His findings lead him into conflict with government conspiracies, mysterious religious figures, and Poets who can turn people into zombies gargoyles by controlling their bodies and souls with mercury. Helping him are three other guys who have their own ties to France—and to his sister, who's providing him extra help by using his body as a vessel for her wandering spirit (it helps that she's a wicked good fencer).

While there are elements of the story that make it seem a little silly (zombies? People who attack by writing psalms in...what, the spirit juice that comes from their inner chi?), it works very well in the actual series. The overall atmosphere of the series is crafted so well that these elements don't seem even remotely out of place. With the crisp and aristocratic character designs, and the beautiful (though sometimes a bit jarring) CG-rendered backgrounds, which provide some blindingly gorgeous interiors of the palaces, the story perfectly complements its surroundings. I've written before that some series are classier than others—Le Chevalier D'Eon is one of the classiest, yet most intense, shows released this quarter so far.

What's genuinely fun about this series is its roots in history. Although I'm sure there weren't gargoyle women running amuck in the streets of Paris, D'Eon is based off Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée Éon de Beaumont (tell me you wouldn't want that name on your passport), a French spy who eventually lived out the latter half of his life as a woman. In fact, that could very well be the influence behind D'Eon turning into Lia. Either way, if you're a history buff or a nut for French architecture, it's a joy watching this series and pointing out all the historical homages and surprisingly accurate backdrops. After watching the first volume, I can't wait to see the rest of this show.[TOP]

Best 80s Comeback to Star Unitards

For anyone who likes campy stuff, it's hard to top Cat's Eye, a show that harkens from 1983, and is currently being released by Imaginasian. To give you a sense of how old school this series is, I'm currently watching three women in unitards roller skate through an alley, being chased by the fuzz. These women, who pull off heists under the name Cat's Eye (and also run a coffee shop with the same moniker) also do a choreographed aerobics routine during the ending sequence, set to lyrics like, “Okay girls, work that body! Move your head back and forth. Stretch your arms, one, two. Shake your hips, right, left.” In short, this is some good stuff.

Like all thief shows, Cat's Eye has two very important elements: super smart thieves who can break into anything and steal just about everything—and a detective who can't stop them no matter how hard he tries. And it has the following, which fall under “Not necessary, but always freakin' awesome”: legwarmers, girls who shimmy under laser sensors on a rope, and jewelry heists. Just about anything with the word “heist” in it appeals to me, so Cat's Eye made me giddy from start to finish. Any random person can burglarize something, but it takes a really talented bunch of people to pull off a heist.

Considering its age, the show looks pretty good, too. The animation is pretty chunky, but it's hard to really care about that when you're having fun watching women in ridiculous outfits pull stunts that Sean Connery would be jealous of. It's like watching Charlie's Angels and Ocean's Eleven at the same time, and frankly, it's way too much fun, especially for fans of series like Lupin III (or even junk like St. Tail). This is something that is guaranteed to put a smile on your face, so make yourself some snacks, pop open some decadent carbonated beverages, and kick back. This is the kind of stuff that makes robbery look cool.[TOP]

Moe Madness

Chock full of cute little girls and cute little creatures, Air is one of the most visually pleasing shows out there right now. The art is bright and happy, the character designs are conventionally pretty, and because of its recent age, it's magnificently crisp. Personally, I think the music is great, too, if only because I'm addicted to harem music.

Air is based on one of those games where, if you play your cards right, you get to sleep with as many ladies as you want. But, like most of the successful game-based anime series out there, you can barely tell, which is nice. The story begins when a young man wanders into town, hoping to earn some money by putting on puppet shows. He's made it his life mission to find a certain winged girl in the skies that his deceased mother always talked about. In town, he befriends a small gaggle of girls, all of whom capture his interest with their earnestness, their desire for (platonic, because this is family-friendly) friendship, and their solemn wish to fly.

Perfect for those days when you're too lazy to get off your comfy Ikea couches, this series tumbles along at a very gentle pace. All of the characters get along, none of the conflicts are too taxing, and it seems like no one is ever upset or angry—just sad, but quietly. Although the lack of action would usually make a series more dull, it doesn't seem to be the case with Air. It's a very dreamy show that places most of its focus on the characters' pasts and aspirations, which makes for a very calming viewing experience.

It's worth noting that ADV kept in Misuzu's trademark “gao!”s. This is spectacular for two reasons: 1. “Gao” is an intensely cute sound, and should be kept in at all costs. If dinosaurs actually said “gao,” they probably wouldn't be extinct right now. 2. I'm glad they didn't cut it out, or replace it with something like “roar,” because somewhere out there, a small legion of fanboys would have cried themselves to sleep.

Oh, and something for the ladies: despite its lackadaisical atmosphere, Air has a ridiculous abundance of cute things. “Gao”s aside, it also has a mountain of cute dinosaur plushes, and sloth plushes. It also has a dog named Potato that looks like a pile of mashed potatoes (I am proud to say that I have a Potato plush, which is top-heavy and amazing). Truly, the mark of a good show. More animals should look like popular food items. Seriously, though, whether it's cute girls you want, or cute animals, or just a reason to kick back, Air has it all. It's not the next great masterpiece, but if the summer wind could somehow materialize into an anime series, it would look something like this.[TOP]

Best War Story

War movie afficionados, you owe it to yourself to check out the fascinating and unique Flag. Released by Bandai, it tells of a UN group's efforts to help promote peace negotiations in a civil war-torn nation by rescuing an iconic flag after its been stolen by a rebel group. Along to document all the action is war photographer Shirasu Saeko, who gained fame for snapping a famous photo of civilians raising their nation's flag.

Especially awesome is the way the series is presented visually—almost everything is shown from the perspective of a camera lens or video camera. The amount of detail that the animators put into every scene is amazing, and they go as far as to include all the camera start-up screens, the zoom and f-stop information, and the battery gage. It's a very creative way to depict real-time events, and although I doubt the government would actually let her tape all of their sensitive secrets, it really gives viewers a sense of the atmosphere, the shifting moods of the people at the base, and all the inner trappings of the missions. The animation is fantastic, and the usage of still images really facilitates the photojournalism angle.

Flag is a must-see show for anyone who wants to see something a bit more mature than your typical teenage-boy-pilots-a-robot show. The political and religious factors in the storyline make it especially intriguing, and the only things that could possibly make the series more realistic would be Anderson Cooper's face and James Burke's voice. There's not a single dull moment in the entire first volume, and I can't wait to see how all the pieces will fall together. This is definitely worth watching.[TOP]

The Samuel Jackson Award

This title is on this list because it has Sam Jackson in it. That was their main marketing point, and whether or not it lived up to the hype isn't really of that much consequence. (I don't think it did.) Ringing in at five episodes, the Director's Cut of Afro Samurai is now available from Funimation. With 15 minutes of extra footage, and extra, “Dayum, muh-f*ckah!”s thrown in, this is the only real way to watch Afro Samurai.

However, it should be said early on in the review that this show is not for everyone. It contains a lot of violence, a lot of swearing, and a good amount of sex, so if you're sensitive about this kind of stuff, then there's a chance you won't be very comfortable with it.

That having been said, Afro Samurai seems to have been made for the sole purpose of being badass. Everything about it exudes cool, and even in its weakest moments, its shortcomings are covered in a layer of animated bling. Samuel Jackson does an amazing job of voicing the stoic Afro, and he lends his charisma just as well to Ninja Ninja, a stereotypic African American who spouts lines like, “Oh SNAP! Sh** son! F***, yo! You should go get ya jimmy whacked!” The animation is eye-poppingly gorgeous, the music is intense, the anachronisms are really neat, and the action is totally off the hook. Unfortunately, for as amazing as everything looks and sounds, Afro Samurai is a lot more style than it is substance.

The show centers around Afro, a skilled swordsman who is looking to avenge his father's murder. His prey is Number One, so-called because he wears a headband that bears the number 1, and also because he's the top fighter in the lands. The only way to take his title is to kill him—something that only Number Two can do. Luckily, Afro has that qualification. Although the series has moments about finding one's inner strength and what not, it's ultimately a revenge flick. And, as all revenge flicks go, there's not too much you can get from it. At times, it's even a bit slow.

Despite its occasional setbacks, Afro Samurai is still worth watching at least once. In fact, it deserves to be watched at least once, simply for the style points. At its very core, it's sleek and snazzy, and to overuse the word one last time, it's totally badass. It's not the greatest thing since sliced bread and rice cookers, but it's got a lot of oomph, and sometimes, that's just what you need.[TOP]

Worst Kids Show of the Year

There are some kids' shows that are fun for the whole family. Then there are some kids' shows that insult the very TVs that they are shown on. Enter Beet the Vandel Buster, a story about a scrappy Buster who beats Vandals into submission in this video-game-come-to-life series. There's something odd about the way the DVD was produced, though. It's a DVD worthy of a show that's been translated and edited for broadcast—only in this case, the whole TV side of things doesn't exist.

There are two language tracks on the disc—English and Japanese. However, the English version has completely been changed. The original music has been removed, from the opening theme to all the instrumentals. In its place is generic electronica, hard rock, and sweeping melodies worthy of a Jeep commercial. (Though, to be fair, the original Japanese soundtrack is bland, tinkly, and somewhat reminiscent of an old video game.) Why they would make those changes is a little uncertain. If a parent was going to buy their kid a DVD, wouldn't they rather reach for one of the discs that already have mass market appeal, like Naruto? Why would they take their chances on a show that has received almost no marketing whatsoever?

Luckily, there's the Japanese track, right? Not so much. All the music and dialogue is intact, but everything's been dubtitled. So there you have it. A disc that's designed to appeal to kids, that no parent would buy—that has features for sub enthusiasts that no purist would buy.

The story's not even that great, either. It certainly is nothing terrible—but it is standard. A world is being ravaged by monsters, and the only people who can defeat them are Busters, fighters who get to level up every time they slay something. Beet, our pint-sized hero, is determined to save the world and gets some help early on when local warriors make the ultimate sacrifice for him. As the years wear on, he kills bigger things, hoping to someday waste off every last monster. A notable goal. Would it be fun as a kids' show? Yeah, it kind of is, but who's going to buy this DVD, huh?[TOP]

Worst Videogame-to-Anime Series

It's rare feat for a video game to be successfully transformed into a fun and exciting anime series. Disgaea, unfortunately, is one of the failures, and ends up being something that alienates fans and non-fans alike with its lack of storyline and terrible narrative. I guarantee you that if you've never played the video game, you will have zero interest in the series. It's like listening to a private conversation full of in-jokes that you're not privy to. The series vaguely follows the plot of the video game, throwing in the “I shall call you Mid-Boss!” jokes that delighted hordes of fans. Out of the context of the game, though, it's really not that engaging. Disgaea's storyline isn't interesting enough to truly be captivating, so what you have left is a madcap adventure with weird characters running around trying to be funny. Add the fact that they're all incredibly whiny and immature, and continually spout terrible “I'm afraid of your voluptuous breasts!!” jokes, and you've got a big stinking pile of Not Funny.

But, really, if you are a rabid fan of Disgaea, you will probably like this show. It's filled with energy, you can relive the game without having to play it again, and the dub is fantastic. And it has lots and lots and lots of Prinnies. Unless, of course, you're a purist, which in that case you'll be bitter the whole time because there are discrepancies between the anime and the game.

As someone who hasn't played the game, though, I can't really recommend this. By trying to cram a game into a 12-episode series, and trying to be funny while doing so, it's really made itself too inaccessible to non-fans.[TOP]

There were plenty of other series that deserved to be mentioned, like the incredibly badass Kurau: Phantom Memory, the funny, but deeply disturbing Welcome to the NHK, the fan-favorite Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, or the money drain that has been the entire year of BVUSA's (often great) releases, but space is of the essence. Thanks for reading, and here's to a great new year!


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