Shelf Life
Olympic Spirit

by Bamboo Dong, Aug 11th 2008

I love the Olympics. They're the best two weeks on TV, every two years. Every time, I love getting together with my friends to watch the opening ceremonies (how absolutely brilliant were they this year?) and filling my head with sports. I also love flipping through the channels and realizing, “wait… this is an Olympic sport?” Most recently, I was completely shocked to discover that trampoline was a sport. It does take a lot of endurance, talent, and athletic ability, but wow, I had no idea people even did this seriously, especially enough to warrant the IOC's attention. Also, the modern pentathlon. That's just wacky. I love international sports.

So, in honor of the Olympics, I wanted to highlight some recently released anime series in which Olympic-sanctioned sports are featured to some degree, or play a big role in the characters' lives. Then next week, once the hubbub dies down, we can get back into the regular swing of things.

Welcome to Shelf Life.

Track & Field

Anime guys love girls who do track and field, and no other series was as track-obsessed as Suzuka, a mind-numbing romantic “comedy” released by Funimation. Here's the first volume review:

Although I started the disc with a lot of eye-rolling and skepticism, I found myself rather interested by the end. For me, having the musical score and the acting and, most of all, the timing, really helped. And, luckily, the side characters really don't get that much screen time. Highlighting the growing relationship between Suzuka, the rising star of the high school track team, and Yamato, the hapless next-door neighbor (and son of the landlady), the story plays out like a standard high school romance show. You have your over-eager guy who's jonesin' to start dating the cool, aloof athletic chick, and you have your aforementioned girl, who's slowly warming up to the guy, but not before she reveals some big character angst trait, like a dead boyfriend or daddy issues. And, of course, you have your side characters. There's also the irritating best friend who messes things up, the quiet girl who would do anything to go out with the lead guy, the sister figure, and the handful of lushes.

So really, you have all the ingredients you need for a fairly inoffensive romance. What makes Suzuka engaging to watch, though, is Suzuka herself. As confused as Yamato is about her actions and her emotions, so is the audience. Like every mean girl ever scripted, she has a sweet side, too, and probably either a dead boyfriend or daddy issues. Having not seen past the first five episodes (or read past the first volume of the manga), I can't confirm this, but something is going on. My only real concern at this moment is that the show may run out of steam within its 26-episode run. Things are fine now because it's only the first disc, but if there's not going to be a storyline outside of some guy trying to woo a girl... well, we'll cross that bridge when we get there.

Having trudged through my fair share of shonen romances, I can't say that Suzuka really stands out too much in my mind. It's like the frozen corndog of romance anime. You can heat one up whenever you're hungry, and you may even crave one in the middle of the night, bu it's not exactly a delicacy. It just kind of exists, hoping you'll eat it. And you know what, you might as well eat it. It's at least worth sticking on your queue, but I wouldn't sweat bumping it to the top.

I totally ate those kind words as the series progressed, didn't I? Want to know what happens in the last volume? Read away.[TOP]

Other runners include one of the many lead gals from Kanon. She's the captain of her track team, even though she's kind of a spaz.

It's as good of a time as any to indulge in ADV's release of Kanon, the ultimate “sad girls in the snow” show. Though, frankly, I wouldn't agree with the ridiculous back-of-the-box description of the series being a “poignant concerto of tears, laughter, and pinky promises,” because whoever wrote that clearly doesn't know what a concerto is. Regardless, it is a pretty cute (and somewhat angsty, at times) show, and although it's quite a bit slower than Air, it's something that will please fans of the visual novel genre.

Seven years have passed since Yuichi has visited the town his cousin lives in, but since he's transferred into her high school, he's moving in with her and her mom. He doesn't remember much about the town, but he keeps getting flashbacks of girls and feelings he doesn't understand. However, it's still a quick transition for him, and before long, he's made friends with a bunch of other girls, some of whom know him from the past.

While many of the girls fill certain visual novel stereotypes, for newcomers to the genre, some of them may seem a little over the top. An example in particular is a girl who not only looks five years younger than Yuichi, but also has wings on her backpack, and has a trademark sound effect. She's not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, and actually chased her tail for a good minute trying to see the wings on her back. Other archetypes include a sword-toting senior, a sickly girl, and a hyperactive nuisance, but in the end, they all provide a colorful backdrop and more opportunities for male viewers to fawn over.

Although I wasn't as taken in by the first volume of Kanon as I was by Air, I still found it very pleasant to watch. It's a very calming show, and even the occasional obnoxious moments couldn't break up the soothing atmosphere of the snowy town. So far, though, only the characters have been introduced, and not much else. There hasn't been an established storyline yet, and since almost nothing is revealed in Yuichi's flashbacks, the story doesn't really have a clear endpoint in sight. However, it's a fairly innocuous show and it's helped by the fact that there's actually a normal male protagonist. He's a smart, nice, independent guy, which makes the series infinitely more enjoyable to watch than those with wimpy milquetoasts who get beat up all the time. In fact, most of the characters are pretty likeable, so even with the lack of story, it's still easy to want to know what happens next.

It goes without saying that if you're a fan of moe, then Kanon is a must-buy. With its giant cast of young-looking high school girls, it's as moe as they come, and nothing brings out the brotherly instinct in daydreaming anime fans like girls shivering in their mittens. Even if you're not into this kind of thing, though, Kanon has enough to offer that you'll probably be entertained. It's a very low key series, with a few laughs scattered here and there, and there's just enough hints at angst and tragedy to keep you interested.[TOP]


Equestrian sports

Back at my college, equestrian sports were pretty popular. I don't think people ever actually went to the meets and watched our show jumpers do their stuff, but I think people just liked the idea of equestrian sports. There's a certain level of pretension there that you just have to appreciate. Has anyone been watching this year's dressage events? Old fops in top hats make the best athletes ever. And with that, Strawberry Panic!, in which one of the main girls is the darling of the school's equestrian team.

When I first heard the name Strawberry Panic!, I immediately fantasized about the ultimate bakery, in which hordes of cute girls would get into whipped cream fights and then squeal in distress when a glob hit their nose. Sadly, that's not what the show ended up being, but it certainly did have a horde of girls, and they were all pretty cute.

Released under Media Blaster's Yuri Fan catalogue, the series does have a touch of yuri elements, but they're more playful than sexual. The series centers around a transfer student who's just entered a prestige school. The campus is gorgeous and the girls are friendly, but the rules are really strict, and there are a lot of traditions that she's yet to figure out. For instance, there's a girl known as Etoile, who not only oversees the student councils of the school's separate campuses, but is also the symbolic leader of the student body. She's beautiful and kind and everyone adores her—and she's taken an immediate liking to the new student. The two even almost kiss several times.

Unsurprisingly, there's something slightly sinister (or perhaps just mysterious?) going on, and there are some things about Etoile that haven't been revealed yet. Every time she almost kisses the new girl (which happens a lot, almost to the point of irritance), someone comments about how she's got ulterior motives, or something to that effect.

Etoile aside, though, the series is pretty cute. The characters are all a lot of fun, and it's fun watching all the girls do their club activities and throw tea parties. Strawberry Panic! mainly follows a set storyline that involves Etoile and the new girl, but it has a plenty of standalone episodes that allow the characters to have tons of fun. There's also a couple episodes that focus on some of the other girls, too, so viewers can really get a full sense of everyone's histories.

Visually, the show is pretty easy on the eyes. The character designs are pleasing, and all the flowing hair does well to accentuate the femininity of the show. Overall, the series is just very sweet and easy to watch. There isn't a whole lot of drama right now, and the series is staying mum about all the school's secrets, but the girls' charm is enough to keep viewers interested in the time being. It's a very laid-back show, and if you're looking for something relaxing to watch over the weekend, Strawberry Panic! might just hit the spot.[TOP]


Swimming

So while everyone is busy watching Michael Phelps clean up the entire pool, let's not forget one of the most beat-upon swimmers in recent anime history—Momo from Peach Girl. She worked her butt off in the pool, but as a result, she ended up with bleach-blonde hair and a dark tan. And, she's got one of the bitchiest friends in the entire world. Here's the boxset review:

If you missed out on the pink pop Peach Girl the first time around, you can now grab the series in a fold-out boxset. There's love and jealousy, hatred and betrayal, and if you find yourself secretly watching junk like The Hills, well, this show is much better.

The title character of Peach Girl is Momo, an athletic girl who has her eyes set on a boy she's about to finally confess to. Happiness is hard to come by, though, when your best friend is a backstabbing, grating, highly irritating (What? I don't dislike her at all.) witch who wants everything you have. Sae is used to being the center of attention all the time, and she'll stoop to ridiculous lows just to steal Momo's crush, like spreading rumors, or even donning a wig to try and get him into the sack. She's a villainess to end all villainesses, and it's easy to develop a healthy case of hatred against her.

Drama doesn't just start and end with a crush, though. Before the series is over, the characters will have been to hell and back—the kind of hell that can only be exacerbated by the horrors of high school. Between love triangles and pregnancy scares, Peach Girl rivals some of the chick dramas on TV.

Fair warning, though—this isn't the show to watch if you want to retain your composure. The antics of Sae are enough to stir up the anger in the most stoic of viewers, and having to watch the sweet heroine battle against her is almost too much to bear sometimes. Luckily, all of the characters manage to change over the course of the series, leading to a melodramatic rollercoaster of The OC proportions.

The boxset is also a great purchase for those who want all the discs in one place, but don't want to go through the embarrassment of buying that pink purse that came with the artbox. There are plenty of guys who watch this show, and having to buy a purse just isn't cool. Even if you tell the cashier that it's for your sister. With the kind of mental anguish that I suffered watching the first few (or five) discs, though, I don't know that I'd actually watch this series a second time. For fans of messy romances and serious cat-fighting, it's at least worth a rental. The catty girls are fun to watch, Sae is bitchy as hell, and let's face it—that's fun. Drama's a drag to have in real life, but if it's on your screen, then there's no better way to kill some time, especially during a girls' night out. I recommend lots of cupcakes and a quart of ice cream.[TOP]


Archery

Throughout anime, archery has been a decently popular sport, spanning favorites like Earth Girl Arjuna and a variety of magical girl shows. And, of course, you can't bust spirits without knowing a thing or two about archery. Most recently, this elegant sport was practiced by one of the guys in xxxHOLiC, released by Funimation. I just reviewed the most recent volume a couple weeks back, so let's take a trip back in history and look at the first one.

The series, once again, is xxxHOLiC, the 24-episode series based on the CLAMP manga of the same name. With its stylish, lanky character designs, it's definitely unique visually. Everyone's legs are a mile long, and it imparts a sort of quasi-sexiness, quasi-spookiness to everything. The costumes and hairstyles are stunning, too, and I could totally see it being a cosplayer's paradise.

The series itself is one of CLAMP's more mature, slanting towards a darker, moodier atmosphere. Focusing on the supernatural, the series centers around a lot of myths and legends, observing the spirits that cohabitate the human world. The main character is a slightly goofy guy named Watanuki, who'd be pretty normal if not for the fact that he can see spirits. They're naturally attracted to him and his subconscious wish to have them disappear leads him to accidentally stumble upon the home of Yuko, a witch who can grant wishes—at a price. In exchange for keeping spirits off of him, she requires that he work for her part time as her personal servant. Under her employment, he's able to learn more about the other spirits that plague the other customers who inadvertently wander in seeking help.

A while back, I mused in one of my columns about what it would be like if Mushi-Shi were to take place in the hustle and bustle of a large city. I imagine if they did so, it'd be something like xxxHOLiC. Each episode centers on a new spirit, and regardless of whether or not it gets chased away, viewers get to see what it does, and how it comes about. There isn't really a driving story arc just yet, but half the fun is in seeing what kind of customer will come in next.

As far as supernatural shows go, xxxHOLiC is pretty entertaining. It has a solid handful of characters who are exciting to watch, but don't overshadow the spirits-o'-the-week or the themes of predestination that pervade the series. Watanuki, especially, is a crack-up, and his character is made better by the performance of Todd Haberkorn. His nervousness and jumpiness is conveyed through a wide range of vocal inflections, and I totally dig it. Seriously, he's such a mega-dork that he's almost charming, especially surrounded by cool and collected people like Yuko.

I've always preferred CLAMP's more serious stuff to their cutesy, soda-pop bright kiddie shows, and so far, I'm having a good time with xxxHOLiC. Yuko's kind of bad-ass, and she provides a great complement to the series' supernatural side. Without a doubt, xxxHOLiC is as intriguing as it is sexy, and that's saying a lot.[TOP]


Rhythmic gymnastics

Okay, I don't really have a review to put in here, but it's worth mentioning that the Japanese are obsessed with this sport. I've never understood the appeal myself, but for as long as I remember, I have seen anime girls twirling ribbons and catching balls in leotards. I challenge you, my dear readers, to come up with a lengthy list of all the anime series you've ever seen that have included this puzzling sport.

Judo

Dear AnimEigo,

Please release Yawara ASAP. I need it badly.

Love, Bamboo.


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