Shelf Life
Bubble Teatrino

by Bamboo Dong, Aug 31st 2009

It is so hot in Southern California right now. So hot. It should be a criminal offense to rent out apartments in this state without air conditioning. It has completely robbed me of any motivation to do anything besides lie on the ground, whimpering. I am a useless shell of a human right now.

Welcome to Shelf Life.

One of the greatest things about Gunslinger Girl was that even though there were plenty of cute little girls and plenty of guns, it was never a cute-girls-with-guns show. That the assassins happened to be little kids wasn't part of the appeal—it was part of the conflict, and it walked a moral tightrope throughout the entirety of the series. Not so with Gunslinger Girl: Il Teatrino. In this sequel, much of that gray area has been scrubbed clean, replaced with cyborg gals who are more like happy assassin pets than complex girls with tortured pasts. Don't get me wrong—Il Teatrino is still great to watch, and I'm thankful for the sequel, but it's very different from its predecessor. It places less focus on the individual girls and their oftentimes strained relationships with their handlers, and instead shifts its focus to the story, a fast-paced terrorist plot.

In this series, a terrorist organization known as the FRF has been making its presence very well known in Italy. Their next project is to blow up a bridge that's currently in construction, but they need the help of Pinocchio, a young man who was raised to be an assassin. The only people who have a chance to stop him are the girls from the Social Welfare Agency, who have been ordered to stop the terrorist plot. The story is interesting and it's very well told, but in the process, the audience loses out on a connection with the girls, who are mere players in this story.

The animation has taken a nosedive, also, which is not surprising given the lower budget. The fight scenes are the most obvious consequence, relying on old tricks like speed lines and convenient close-ups, rather than the fluid fights of the original series. The girls' facial expressions have lost much of their complexity, as well. Compared to the original, where every eyebrow furrow and every downward glance invoked strong reactions from viewers, the girls in Il Teatrino look vapid in comparison. Part of this is due to the character designs, which replace the old designs with a more generic, big-eyed, bright smiles look. Gone is the internal conflict, replaced with bland little girls who are more than happy to carry around big guns, simply because they're expected to.

As a thriller, Il Teatrino works. The story is very well constructed and the bad guys are convincingly written. There's never a slow moment, and it's hard to not be excited for whatever may happen next. But that's kind of it. It's just a thriller now. I'm a big fan of the genre, and I was more than happy to marathon the entire show over two days, but I feel like the show is really missing something. Terrible animation aside, it's missing a lot of heart, and that was always one of the best parts of the first series. Still, for fans of the original, it's definitely worth seeing.[TOP]

Also on my list this week was the fifth volume of Darker than Black, a series that's continued to maintain my interest, but has yet to fully captivate me. With this set of episodes, the Syndicate is hired to infiltrate a religious cult. Later, they take part in a terrorist plot to bomb the US Embassy. What this means for viewers is that we get more episodes of Hei running around electrocuting things and being a badass, and more unanswered questions about the Gate, the Great Blackout, and basically everything else that's been dangled in front of our faces since episode one.

I've since accepted that we will never know the answers to many questions, and that Darker than Black has found the ultimate method to keep viewers pining for each new episode, but I can't help but feel a little cheated. I love watching Hei and his crew run around foiling this or that, or battling other Contractors in beautifully choreographed fights, but come on guys. I feel like I deserve an explanation. You can't just have some mysterious secrets, and then not say what they are. That's like saying to someone, “Hey, did you hear about so-and-so? Oh, you didn't? Never mind.” Not cool. But really, the crux of the problem is that there's only so much of this episodic storytelling that one can watch without wondering if there's anything else this show has to offer. It's fun the way it is, but ultimately, it's a little shallow.

What is really convenient about this series is that all of its episodic stories are actually told across two episodes. This means that in any given Darker than Black disc you buy (or rent), you're getting two complete storylines. And, considering the writers have no intentions of answering any questions about anything important, this pretty much means you can watch any disc, any time, and it'll still make sense. So for those of you who aren't averse to collecting only bits and pieces of a series, you can just buy your favorite episodes—or rent whatever's on the shelf.

Visually, this series has always pleased me. The character designs are really gorgeous, even though the vast majority of their foxy ladies look exactly the same. The fight scenes are really fun to watch, and even though there's nothing groundbreaking about the animation, the studio has put a lot of effort in making the fights look as natural as possible—as natural as one could expect when there's a guy psychically punching holes the size of a soccer ball through someone's torso.

Darker than Black is fun to watch, but I don't admit to being a big fan of it. However, if what you're looking for this week is just a simple action series involving people with superpowers, this series will probably rock your world. Its two-episode format makes it easy to pop it like popcorn, so it's a good way to kill some time.[TOP]

If you've been feeling rather nostalgic lately for some of your old favorites, you might be in luck. Sentai Filmworks, formerly ADV Films, has been re-releasing much of their catalogue. One of their recent offerings is Sorcerous Stabber Orphen, a series that brings back fond memories for me. When I was younger, and had much less discerning taste, I watched this series with my old anime club and immediately fell in love with its goofy humor and its rakishly handsome protagonist. Watching it now, it's lost much of its charm, but I can't help but think that there are plenty of younger fans who might be just as enamored with the series now as I was in high school.

However, I do have to wonder what they were thinking with the packaging, which is a little ungainly. Each season is packaged in a big, fat clamshell roughly the size of a VHS. Open it up and you see a spindle of discs, which means if you want to get at the last disc, you have to take out the entire stack. The other side of the case just has a massive wedge of plastic foam. It seems to me they could've just used one of the thinpaks that hold 4-discs each, because the way it is, the entire boxset is pretty bulky.

Packaging woes aside, though, Sorcerous Stabber Orphen hearkens back to a day when comedic fantasy was still fairly popular. The overarching story arc veers on the serious side, but it can't resist throwing in slapstick laughs in the form of unwanted travel companions, which can get a little tiresome at times. Our main character Orphen is a graduate from one of the most prestigious wizarding academies in the world, but rather than climbing the typical sorcerer career ladder, he decides to embark on a mission of his own. Professing his undying devotion to a girl from his past, he leaves in search of a dragon called Bloody August, vowing to release it from its hideous and dangerous form. Hint: the girl is actually the dragon. Along the way, he also has to battle a variety of trolls and monsters.

It's the kind of show that one could easily spend all day watching, but aside from its fast-paced storytelling, everything else about the series is fairly mediocre. From the standard animation to the bland soundtrack, everything slips under the effort radar. Humorously, the only time the artists spend a lot of time in the art department is when they're drawing a sexy still. For instance, a girl can be wearing a nondescript blue dress, but the instance she falls on the floor, suddenly the dress is clinging to every curve on her body in the most detailed manner possible. It's inconsistent, to be sure, but hey, if they want to blow their meager budget on cheesecake shots, that's their choice.

This series has not aged well, either. The wide-eyed, vacant stares of the female protagonist is reminiscent of the kinds of character designs that were popular in the late 90s, and the grainy video transfer doesn't help. Orphen was fairly popular in my anime club back when it was first released, but I can't really imagine it holding the same kind of appeal now as it did back then. It's just too mediocre. There's nothing that really stands out about this series, except for the freakishly good-looking main character. With all the other better options on the retail shelves, it's not clear why this would be your choice purchase. Unless you missed this release the first time around, and you've got an aching, nostalgic void to fill in your heart, you might consider your other anime options first.[TOP]

Sentai's not the only company pumping out re-releases, though. Funimation's got plenty of its own up its enormous sleeves, including When The Cry, a creepy series about creepy kids that is also, extremely creepy. With all six discs packaged in three thinpaks, this boxset is all you need to scare the piss out of yourself on a lonely night. Really, when it comes to scary kids, this series pretty much takes the cake.

Considering the way that this series is set up, having all of the discs in one place is pretty great. Each arc starts out the same way—we see the last few minutes of a grisly murder, whether it's a kid stabbing someone with an ice pick, or beating them to death with a heavy object. Then it goes back to the beginning of the story, where viewers are introduced to the happy-go-lucky characters. After an episode or so of sugary cuteness, things start to go awry. Bodies start missing, tempers start flaring, eyes start widening, and before you realize what's going on, people are running in terror from crazed, homicidal children. Then it starts all over again, this time with a slightly different twist.

It's brilliant. You're essentially watching the same story multiple times, but each time, it's told differently, and the key events are different. The only thing that stays the same is in the end, people die. And it's gruesome every single time.

It's not for everyone. I don't expect people to like it. But if you like your horror stories with a dash of cute and freaky, and a whole lot of mangled corpses, then this is the last purchase you'll ever have to make. Part of the brilliance is simply in how the characters are drawn. At the beginning of each arc, they're cuter than a bag full of buttons, but by the end, their eyes are the size of baseballs, their mouths are contorted into screaming chasms, and I guarantee you they would eat babies without even thinking about it. Alive. That's how terrifying these characters are, and the artistic transformation that takes place between cute and demonic is so simple that it's beautiful, and I commend Studio DEEN for animating some of the most hellish faces I've ever seen.

I've seen a lot of horror anime in my lifetime. When They Cry is easily in the top five. Maybe even the top three. The way this series effortlessly blurs the line between everyday and nightmare is enough to chill the sun, and if you even remotely enjoy the horror genre, you owe it to yourself to watch this. And look, Funimation—if you don't license and release the second season, I will sit in your lobby and cry. I need to see it.[TOP]

That's it for this week. Thanks for reading, and please do a rain dance or something. This weather is killing me.

This week's shelves are from Justin K, who wrote this about his collection:

"This is Justin here with my anime collection of about 5 years. I just started really getting into figures and have bought a few more since these pictures were taken. All the cases on the shelves are empty and are usually stored in the bottom of my closet because they take up too much shelf space. All my dvd's are kept in my Discgears to save on shelf space and to keep them all organized. I almost forgot to mention my autographed Fullmetal Alchemist poster that I got after seeing the movie at a beer tavern in Houston.

P.S. Sorry I don't have any cute cat pics for you Bamboo."

It's okay, Justin. I accept your shelves, even without a cat.



I'm digging those shelves!

Want to show off your stuff? Send your jpgs to shelflife at animenewsnetwork dot com. Thanks!


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