Shelf Life
Hell's Bells

by Bamboo Dong, Jan 14th 2008

Dear valuable reader,

It has come to my attention lately that some of you may disagree with my opinions. For that, I apologize gravely and accept full responsibility. I've fallen into the deep, murky sandtrap that is obviously bias, and I've lost sight of my ways. My opinions have gotten the better of me, and I slipped down the dangerous precipice of subjective criticism. I am biased against all of your favorite shows, and it's true, I have ulterior motives. In an epiphany, I realized that it's not my job to warn you against “bad” (relative, really, because it can't be truly “bad” if someone out there likes it) series, but only to champion the positive points of every title. So this week, I'll be doing just that.

Welcome to Shelf Life.

The first volume I wanted to share with everyone is one of the best shows that's ever been released in the romantic comedy genre—Suzuka, now on its fifth volume. Despite its problems with character development, and its complete lack of likeable characters, it's still the best show ever.

Sarcasm aside, the fifth volume is actually much, much more tolerable than previous volumes. Things start off rather explosively when Honoka and Yamato's relationship takes a rough turn, and it's admirable to see her take matters into her own hands and stop putting up with his crap. Unfortunately, that's the only thing that really changes, character-wise. Unsurprisingly, Suzuka still gets angry every five minutes, and although Yamato makes the observation, “she's actually rather childish,” it doesn't change his feelings about her. He still can't focus on track while she's mad at him, and all of his life decisions still appear to revolve around her. With characters like that, how am I, as a viewer, supposed to give a damn?

As if to further insult the viewer's intelligence, the various side characters still feel the need to remind every so often that Suzuka's previous love interest was very similar to Yamato, and she treated him poorly, too. Is it possible, then, that they may end up together after all?? Sadly, I don't think it's possible to care anymore. But, just like Honoka's character changes made this volume more interesting than previous ones, the sudden development of another female friend is preventing everything from stagnating too horribly.

“What about the aesthetics?” you ask. “Perhaps the animation has suddenly become brilliant, to make up for the utter lack of character development!” Alas, no. The animation is just as junky as it was before, and they're still using the same blasted two-note background music as they did in the first episode.

Of course, that's just my personal opinion. I happen to like my characters to change over the course of a series, and have meaningful friendships and relationships that differ over time, especially if it's a romance. But, that's not for everyone! This is actually a really fun and exciting series for fans of static characters. In terms of bitchy girls who get angry all the time, Suzuka's the best, and don't let anyone tell you anything different.

Rating: [TOP]

Moving on to something a little less superficial, let's take a look at the first volume of Phoenix. Adapted from Osamu Tezuka's manga of the same name, the series has 13 episodes and was picked up a few years ago by Media Blasters. Surprisingly, given its possibly niche audience, it even has an English dub track, although it's nothing to write home about.

The first disc is comprised of the entire “Dawn” arc, and the first episode of the “Resurrection” arc. Unlike traditional series, Phoenix eschews the concept of linear storytelling. Instead, it focuses on concepts and themes, and uses the characters as mere pawns to advance these ideas, such as life, death, and perseverance. To illustrate the fast turn-around time with the characters, audiences are introduced to what could possibly be a hero figure, but he dies within the first five minutes. Other main characters arrive and disappear within a handful of scenes, and time passes in leaps and bounds (and that doesn't even count the dramatic jump to the Resurrection arc, which takes place on a moon colony years after the Earth has been destroyed). Although the jerky timing is a little jarring at first, it really puts human life into perspective, especially in times of warfare and turmoil.

Despite the good intentions of the series, some of the dialogue is pretty laughable. After an entire village is wiped out, save one couple, they have the following expository exchange:

“I want to give birth to hundreds and thousands of babies, so we can create a new village!” “That's why I want to find the phoenix. That way, [my wife] can drink its blood and she'll never die. That way, she can have a thousand babies.”

I probably should've been more supportive of their ambitions, but I had to pause the DVD to laugh.

It'll be interesting to see how the series progresses from this point. The first part of the Resurrection arc isn't nearly as powerfully driven as Dawn, but maybe things will change for the better in the upcoming discs. Overall, it's a unique show, and it's an interesting commentary on how far society will go to achieve eternal life, but understandably, it may not be for everyone. The series was only made in 2004, but some newer fans may be turned off by its muted palette and Tezuka's signature character designs. It's pacing may throw off some viewers, too, so it may be more financially viable to give it a rental first, as it may be a bit of an acquired taste.

Rating: [TOP]

Next up was the second volume of Welcome to the NHK, which is rapidly becoming one of those series that everyone should check out at some point. It's simultaneously funny and disturbing, with some scenes so uncomfortably awkward that one might almost be tempted to turn it off, if not for an overwhelming desire to know what happens next. ADV should also seriously consider doing reversible covers, because taking up a disc like this to the Best Buy checkout counter is wicked embarrassing.

In the second disc, we get to see a bit more of how the lead character is afflicted by his reclusive lifestyle. Although he's able to venture into society, it's easy to see that he's not able to function properly. Faced with paranoia and a constant fear that people are looking down at him, his interactions often lead to hallucinations and outburst, something that gives this volume a weight that moves it further and further from the comedy genre.

After finally fessing up to his hikikomori ways, Sato thinks he's off the hook, but other challenges present themselves, like his mother's visit, or the possibility that his trusty friend may have a girlfriend. While the first couple episodes of the series may have given the impression that Welcome to the NHK would stray into mockumentary territory, it's now become more obvious that it's more of a straight-up social commentary using the example of one man's life. It's definitely one of the better shows out there right now. Not only because of its unique subject matter, but also because of the way that it's presented. The animation style is very quirky and borders on cartoonish at times, lending it a surrealism that makes it more interesting to watch. Yes, it can be uncomfortable to watch at times, but it's very rewarding and definitely worth owning.

It is possible that some viewers will be put off by its brilliance, fantastically complex characters, and its many social implications, but due to my slanted bias towards those very same traits, I heartily endorse this series.

Rating: [TOP]

One series that I wasn't quite as taken with from the get-go was Hell Girl, which became a bit tedious over time with its repetitive pattern, and the fact that it uses the same ten lines of script in every episode. At least by the end of the second disc, a reoccurring character has been established, making it easier to invest oneself in the series. It also helps that the series has finally begun to question issues like, “is it really worth going to hell just because you hate someone?” In the last episode alone, two scenes really stand out—one in which Ai's grandmother says comments on people's unwillingness to talk out their problems, and one in which the Hell squad notes dryly how nice it is that two girls were able to sort out their problems.

I'm a little relieved that the elephant in the room has finally been pointed out. Sure, it was fun to watch all those scenes of people freaking out and getting dragged to hell, but come on. As much as I'd love to punch a few people in the face, sending people to Hell is a little extreme. If every teenager had the ability to curse their peers, half the world would be doomed to death.

Adding a reoccurring character actually makes a big difference. Sure, the show's still extremely repetitive, but at least it doesn't feel quite so random and Death of the Week as it did before. This isn't to say that the show has suddenly become riveting, though. For the most part, it's still a bit on the dull side, especially since viewers still don't know anything about Ai and her sidekicks. Who are the people that work with her? What is their function? What is their backstory? Heck, who is Ai, and why does she have that job?

This series has so many unanswered questions and so many essential details missing from its backstory that it's hard to care about anything that happens. Surely, if they have the time to repeat the same lines in every episode, they have the time to explain who the main players are?

Luckily, if you like shadowy main characters who are never explained, and you have infinite patience for repetitive shows, you'll love Hell Girl. It's a really swell show, and even though I personally wouldn't recommend anything higher than a rental, it's a total must-buy.

Rating: [TOP]

That's it for this week. Enjoy your anime.

This week's Shelf Obsessed.... doesn't exist. I can't access any emails dated before Wednesday because Yahoo's mail servers are being angry at me, but they assure me the problem will be fixed soon, and we'll be back next week with double the shelves.

In the meantime, if you want to show off your collections, send your jpgs to shelflife at animenewsnetwork dot com! Thanks!


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