Shelf Life
Fresh Blood

by Erin Finnegan, Oct 19th 2009

Hi! Although I'm new to ANN, I have been writing about anime and manga for a while. In 2006, I started writing about manga for popcultureshock.com in exchange for the free books. Based on those reviews, I started writing for Publishers Weekly Comics Week online, and then Otaku USA Magazine. I also run an almost-monthly podcast, The Ninja Consultant Show, one of the longest running podcasts about anime.

My podcast co-host is my now-husband Noah. We got married this year! In space! By Lord British! Well, under space-like conditions in zero gravity, but Richard Garriott really was our officiant. You can read more about it elsewhere on the internet. Sometimes I might mention Noah's opinion on a show, because I think there's a growing audience of anime fans who would like to know whether or not they can watch a show with their significant other.

Like many anime fans of my generation, I started watching Sailor Moon in high school. During my senior year in college, I realized animation - from any country - is what I like best in life, so I took some animation classes. After I graduated, I got an internship which lead to production jobs in animation. I've worked on Codename: Kids Next Door, Click and Clack's As the Wrench Turns, and the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. While I was working on these fine shows, I went to a ton of conventions (including two in Japan), watched hundreds of hours of anime, and read a lot of manga. Recently animation has fallen on hard times, and I'm trying to get as much review work as possible. (Plus we're still paying off our space wedding.)

When I read reviews, I want to know if I have the same taste as the reviewer or not. So, for your information, my favorite anime titles are Hayao Miyazaki's films, anything by Satoshi Kon, Shinichiro Watanabe's works, and the finer stuff from Gainax; His and Her Circumstances, Evangelion, and Gurren Lagann. I love Genshiken, Ghost in the Shell, NANA, Golgo 13, and Princess Tutu.

If you're 16 and up, you should really give Black Lagoon a try. Sure, there's a badass chick with short shorts and two guns, and yes, the animation is super high-quality and the action scenes are really spectacular, but the reason you should watch Black Lagoon is because it's relevant to our times. Like the very best fiction, Black Lagoon re-interprets current events through characters we can identify with. It's like an anime version of The Wire, except instead of drug dealers it's about pirates in Southeast Asia. Like The Wire, there's a lot of political commentary in Black Lagoon, it's just very, very subtle. Most viewers will be too distracted by the awesome gun fights to notice the rest of the show's layers.

The crew of the Black Lagoon have given up their nationalities to operate a semi-legitimate delivery service, a lot like the crew of Firefly. Dutch, a brooding ex-soldier, leads the team with cool professionalism, laid-back Jewish-American Benny mans the keyboard and the brutally effective Revy, a.k.a. "Two Hands," provides the fire power with, as-advertised, one gun in each hand. In the Firefly comparison, Benny is Kaylee, Dutch is Zoe... and Revy is like an older, less crazy River. Rock, a Japanese businessman, joins the Lagoon Company when his former employer abandons him to the pirates in a red hot second when a deal turns sour. Left jobless, Rock appoints himself as a new crew member at Lagoon Company, specializing in translation, level-headed negotiations, and not getting killed.

There's a brilliantly down-played romance between Rock and Revy, the aforementioned hot-pants wearing gunfighter. The best TV shows have coworker romance where the couple are best friends who haven't made a move on each other yet, like Mulder and Scully before the X-Files sucked, or Rose and the Doctor before the Doctor regenerated. Rock and Revy aren't friends at first. They come from ridiculously disparate backgrounds. Rock grew up in a middle class suburb, while the Chinese-American Revy lived a rough life on the streets of New York City, where she stole and murdered and did whatever it took to survive. The two don't have that much in common, and Revy spends most of the first season hating Rock's guts.

Getting back to current events, much of the show takes place in the fictional city of Roanapur, located in Thailand (probably). The cops are crooked and paid off, and the national government has almost nothing to do with Roanapur, allowing pirates to run the place while the yakuza and the Triad battle in the streets.

Roanapur feels like the setting for a Hollywood action film, but there's historical and present-day precedent for the setting. Did you know Madagascar used to be an all-pirate island? Today, in real life, Somalia has a serious pirate problem, particularly in the all-pirate port city of Eyl, a sort of real life Roanapur. Last April an American container ship was taken hostage by modern pirates similar to the pirates depicted in Black Lagoon.

The cast is rounded out by Balalaika, a reoccurring character nicknamed "Fry-Face". Balalaika and her band of Spetsnaz mercenaries fought the Russian war in Afghanistan, but are no longer connected to their home country. As individuals, they have a lot of resources under the name "Hotel Moscow" and a ton of fire power.

My only reservation in recommending Black Lagoon is that it's really, really dark. It's easy to recommend Cowboy Bebop or Ponyo without hesitating, but Black Lagoon really takes the time to explore humanity's dark underbelly. In one episode a pair of very young and deeply disturbed Romanian twins basically serial kill their way through Roanapur. It's freaking disturbing. I guess if you can handle The Wire you can probably handle Black Lagoon. I mean, it's less disturbing than Kite or almost any hentai title.

This affordable box set has a very nicely done dub, and includes the original music video of the opening theme by MELL (she was at Otakon this year). There are also clean opening and closing themes and some behind-the-scenes interviews with the dub cast.[TOP]

Not every show has a high budget or source material as great as the Black Lagoon manga. For instance, Kaze no Stigma is everything that's average about anime today.

Based on my own trips to Japan, I have this theory that Kaze no Stigma is a typical late-night TV anime series. If you watch it at 2 AM on a Monday in Japanese without subs, and fall asleep on your couch, you could pretend that you yourself are visiting Japan and seeing what the often-mediocre late-night anime block has to offer. Even in today's anime-saturated scene, I think most American fans don't really appreciate the large number of extremely average anime series out there. Kaze no Stigma is so extremely average I'm surprised that there are more than 13 episodes.

Kaze is based on a light novel series. Light novels, by design, are typically sci-fi or fantasy serials intended to be read by otaku and non-readers; the best American equivalent to the light novel audience are guys who only read Star Wars franchise novels and never read "real" books. Judging from the anime, Kaze no Stigma is probably typical of light novels - it's a bit formulaic and fluffy, and you can finish a volume in a couple of hours.

Kazuma was born to a clan of fire-magic users in modern day Japan. When he couldn't produce a flame, he moved to Hong Kong and trained to become a wind user, otherwise known as a "Contractor" because he has a contract with the Spirit of the Wind. (All of this was covered in the first box set, which I haven't seen.) Meanwhile, Kazuma's cousin Ayano (I hope they're distant cousins) was groomed be the next successor of the clan. She's a fire user who has inherited a fairly cool flaming magic sword that she can summon at any time.

This second half of the series starts off with the very first shot of Ayane in the shower. There are many fan service moments in the show, like when Ayano flashes her panties or how Catherine McDonald, a token American introduced in this season, has big bouncy breasts and an unnecessarily low-cut jacket. Fortunately, the fan service never gets over-the-top. It's almost perfunctory, as if the production crew said, "This is a late night show so I guess we better have some fan service in there." Where's the spirit in that? It's not like the director was worshipping the female form. Instead it's more like, "The producers asked us to put in more fanservice."

Further damning the show, episode 13 opens with a lackluster amusement park date, followed by another wacky date episode, and closely followed with an anime-standard hot springs episode. Starting with episode 16, we get a much longer and more interesting plot arc about a mysterious website that's turning teenagers into youma.

As they say in the show, someone is "distributing youma on the internet." I guess if you can download demons in Shin Megami Tensei, it isn't without precedent. There are several unintentionally funny scenes where possessed teens appear to be playing a cell phone version of Yu-Gi-Oh! where the summoned monsters are (ohmygod) real.

This show could be so much better with better character designs. This is a bland title, redefining "meh" with a mostly unoriginal plot. If the characters were more fun to look at or the art was more innovative (like Soul Eater), it would be easier to forgive all the derivative plot elements (like Soul Eater). Ayano and Kazuma's comedic on-again-off-again romance is also something we've seen done before, and done much better, in Full Metal Panic!.

Even the red-haired-girl-with-a-cool-sword thing has been done better elsewhere - Shakugan no Shana is easier on the eyes and Twelve Kingdoms kicks butt without any fanservice at all, and both of those shows are based on light novels.

I'm being a bit disparaging, but it's really not that bad of a show. Ayano and Kannagi have some witty dialog exchanges. Catherine's giant stone avatar fighting angel, the Metatron, is pretty cool. The animation budget is low, but it's not terrible.

Kudos to the dub team for doing a fine job. The dub script varies quite a bit from the subs, but I think they actually improve on the original script. The dub actors seem to really care and put a lot of emotion into their performances.

The best part of the show is that Ayano never has a plan. She rushes into battle without thinking, and the other characters call her out on it. Even if she is an anime stereotype of a red-headed, hot-blooded tsundere, her "Leeroy Jenkins" factor is pretty endearing. I think we've all gamed with someone like that.[TOP]

Of course, compared to Tenma, the love interest in School Rumble, Ayano is a freaking genius.

I've only gone to Anime Expo once, in 2006, and a lot of girls were wearing School Rumble uniforms. I should have known then that it was a good show. I watched two episodes from the first season, but I didn't add the show to my rental queue. I didn't buy the manga, even though I love Del Rey manga.

I'm sorry Kobayashi-sensei, I should have read your manga. I'm sorry to my friend who recommended the anime series - I was wrong. I was wrong about this show, I should have been watching it from season one on. I promise I'll go back and buy the first season! It's just that funny.

As of the Second Semester, Kenji is still in love with Tenma, and he still hasn't made his all-important "love confession" - a vital step in the fictional Japanese high school courting process. Because this is the second season, most episodes don't dwell on the unfulfilled Kenji/Tenma relationship, instead taking time to round out background characters. Kenji barely appears in some episodes.

In case you've never seen School Rumble, most episodes parody a different genre of anime or manga. For example, in the eighth episode of second season Tenma reads a basketball comic and decides basketball is the coolest thing ever. At her request, a girl's basketball team is formed, allowing for plenty of sports anime in-jokes. However, unlike Hayate the Combat Butler, because Rumble's humor is character-driven, you don't need to "get" the references for the jokes to be funny. It's so well done that it's funny on it's own.

I haven't liked a sit-com in years, and lately I've gotten sick of “school life” anime. I feel as if I've attended a Japanese high school by anime proxy for a dozen years, prepping for the Cultural Festival over and over again, making homemade Valentines, and going to the beach once every summer (when did my life turn into Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer?). School Rumble makes that old plot feel new again. Their Cultural Festival is really hilarious. I don't mind that it's another high school story. Even the romantic misunderstandings don't make me roll my eyes.

The scene that really sold me on the show is in episode four. During the preparations for the school festival, the girls make rice balls (onigiri) for the boys. Kenji looks for Tenma's rice balls. She's a terrible cook, so he looks for saddest pair of the most crumbling rice balls, and eats some rice off the top. As he chokes in horror, the background drops out and Kenji is left standing in a white void, where a horse race rumbles past, not quite running him over. Back in real life, choking back tears, Kenji struggles to give Tenma a thumbs up. The taste left in his mouth is so terrible that he has to eat something else, so he reaches for a pair of oddly cube-shaped rice balls, but the moment he bites into one he sees a volcanic explosion in his head, followed by a stampeding CG mammoth. He guessed wrong; these mammoth-inducing cubes are Tenma's rice balls. He's asked to eat the rest to help clean up. The mammoths are comedy gold. After that very well done scene, I knew I'd have to buy the rest of the series.

It's hard to compare School Rumble to other shows; It's like Ranma ½ but lacks martial arts or Rumiko Takahashi's touch. It's like Excel Saga because of the genre parodies, but the humor isn't as spastic, so School Rumble ought to appeal to a wider audience. It's like Ouran High School Host Club without the fujoshi factor. That is to say, both Ouran and Rumble have high production values and are very funny, but it's probably easier to get a heterosexual male to watch Rumble.

The dub was done with a lot of energy. The dub script favors humor over accuracy, which seems appropriate. The actors do a nice job of equivocating their Japanese counterparts, although I think Tenma's voice is just a liiiiiittle bit more annoying in English.

One of the extras is a 40 minute interview with Kobayashi-sensei, where they never show his face, just the back of his head. What a freak!

Did School Rumble ever get the attention it deserves in America? I mean, I didn't give it enough attention. These thinpacks are really affordable. Eventually I'll have to have a marathon screening party of Sayonara Zetsubō Sensei and School Rumble for my friends.[TOP]

This week's shelves are from Michael:

"Hello,

My name is Michael De La O from Dayton, OH.

I've been collecting anime since about 1998 or so. The first anime I ever saw was the original Guyver series and I was hooked ever since. The next big point in anime for me was when I strolled into Suncoast Movie Co. and picked up the first two volumes of Neon Genesis Evangelion (dubbed) on VHS. There was no turning back. I later started to work at Game Stop and we started to carry anime on DVD and my collection exploded and became what I currently have sitting in my home. There are two major things I want to point out about my collection.

1. I love dubbed anime. I understand that most people think watching things in English is a crime but I'm sorry I don't want to watch a show twice to understand what's going on AND see the beautiful art that I wanted to see the first time. I also have trouble matching the inflections and emotions to the subtitles because lets face it, I don't speak Japanese. I feel that I should enjoy my viewing experience and I shouldn't feel uncomfortable trying to read UGLY yellow text and trying to not miss anything on the screen in doing so. I also enjoy hearing the voices of actors that I have come to respect and hear them try new things. I can think of no better example than when Steven Blum, who unfortunately gets typed cast a little too much, played such a drastically different part as Leeron in Gurren Lagann.

2. I purchase every series legitimately. I feel that these hard working individuals worked their collective asses off so I could see their vision and the LEAST I can do is fork over some money to show my appreciation. I understand that there are anime companies that are asking too much, like when FLCL came out at thirty plus dollars per disk and only had two episodes each (still bought em), but this is not the norm. I can see how desperate the industry has become by cramming multiple volumes into the first release and only charging me for one. I love that I get more content for my entertainment dollar but it scares me to see shrinking wall space dedicated to such a great medium. (Disclaimer I know there are two FX box sets on my shelf but unfortunately these were given to me as gifts and I just couldn't refuse them from someone who didn't know.)

To all anime companies that have not gone out of business, PLEASE keep releasing great titles here because I would love to relieve you of them in exchange for money. I may not be the guy that dresses up as my favorite character and parades around the con show floor or the guy who claims to have learned Japanese from watching anime but, I am the guy who runs a Game Stop and has enough disposable income to purchase your wares. My fiancee and I are happy to offer up our greens so that you may continue to entertain us and our one year old daughter, Kino, for years to come.

Thanks for letting me share my story.

FYI : Yes the man who claims to have learned Japanese from anime is real, he shops at my store and yes I have a Brotherhood of Steel soldier living in my garage. "






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