Shelf Life
Cutting Through Red Tape

by Erin Finnegan, Oct 26th 2009

Thank you, everyone, for giving me such a warm welcome to ANN! I'm happy really to get all the comments and discussion. At the Anime Blogger's panel at NYAF this year, several reviewers complained about "writing into the void," when they get no comments at all for months at a time. Writers love comments, so be sure to comment on your favorite blog today!

Here's a bit of art done by my friend Ali depicting her love of comments:

I believe very strongly in the "Shelf Worthy" rating system. When it comes to buying anime, unless there's a very good sale and/or I'm working a very lucrative job, I usually ask myself, "Would I watch this again?" or "Would I loan this to a friend?" If the answer to one of those questions is yes, I'll buy the series. Otherwise, I'd rather stream it, rent it, or watch the broadcast. That said, this week I'm afraid nothing was Perishable and nothing was Shelf Worthy. It was all Rental Shelf.

I do think there's a wide range in the Rental Shelf category. Some items go higher on the Netflix queue than others. In this case, I'd put Saiunkoku towards the top of the rental queue. Both my husband and I really liked it, but it's for a very, very specific audience. If you were interested in watching the HBO John Adams mini series because you think our founding fathers were totally hot and you're extremely interested in historical drama, you might really like Saiunkoku.

Based on a 17+ volume long series of shojo light novels, Saiunkoku is the story of a fantasy version of ancient China where a 16-year-old girl named Shurei dreams of taking the national Civil Service Exam and getting a government job. Unfortunately, women are banned from taking the test. Fortunately, the very intelligent and forward-thinking Shurei is offered the job of being 19-year-old Emperor Ryuki's Consort, only as a temp position. Shurei has a thing or two to teach the shy and reclusive Emperor about running his country.

I like how the cover quote on the DVD says "highly reminiscent of Twelve Kingdoms and Fushigi Yugi." - mania.com. That quote isn't exactly a glowing recommendation. Saiunkoku is similar to both shows only insomuch as it takes place in a fantasy version of ancient China. Refreshingly, the protagonist isn't from our modern world. Twelve Kingdoms has more fantasy elements, and Fushigi Yugi has more romance. Saiunkoku has more politics, and no demons or magic as of this season.

If shojo depends on the strength of the female lead, Fushigi Yugi and Twelve Kingdoms lose out to Saiunkoku. Shurei grew up in a noble family who fell on hard times, forcing her to work a variety of odd jobs. She plays a musical instrument professionally, tutors children, and does accounting for a brothel. Eight years ago, she lived through a horrible famine, and it's given her a lot of ideas of how a government ought to be run and what it should do in a disaster. Unlike Miaka or Yoko, Shurei is a smarty-pants studying really hard for a national exam she's not even allowed to take. She's even a great cook. (There's a recipe for red bean buns on Funimation's website, which is good, because after 39 episodes of this, you're really going to want to eat one.)

I liked the first disc a lot. There's a lot of palace intrigue as people keep trying to poison Shurei. She's blissfully unaware of the Emperor's efforts to keep her safe by stealing her sewing kit (it was poisoned) or forcing her to switch to silver teacups (to detect poison). Then there are a few shorter story arcs before the characters leave for a neighboring province and things get really good again.

I mean, things get good, but I need to warn you that this is literally a show about bureaucrats. Many dramatic moments hinge on a character's ability to navigate the complex government administration. For example, an official knows to open a specific letter first because it was stamped with the special purple stamp the Emperor only uses in emergencies. Shurei is able to talk with the Merchant's Guild because she has a very special wooden pass painted with extra rare glowing paint that proves she's a member of the Hong clan. At more than one point in the show, characters try to outwit other characters by overwhelming them with paperwork. (It reminded me a little of the Bureaucrat song from Futurama.)

That sounds about as exciting as doing your taxes, but did I mention that all the male leads are totally hot dudes? It's kind of like how in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, every time the characters meet a guy who's totally built, he's always a Stand user. Likewise, any attractive young man in Saiunkoku is bound to become a major character. Also, the hot guys are all geniuses and secretly adopted super assassins.

There is, of course, a romance, but it really takes a back seat to everything else in the show. The Emperor is only pretending to be gay because he doesn't want to have heirs that will start a civil war. Despite all the hot guys in the show, and despite the Emperor pretending to be gay, the show never falls into yaoi fanservice. Yes, you could base thousands of yaoi fan fiction stories on Saiunkoku, but I never once got the feeling that the show was pandering to fujoshi.

Season one is 39 episodes and comes in one box set. Season two is another 39 episodes. If you like really long, historically based soap operas, this is totally for you. The dub is perfectly adequate.[TOP]

Likewise, if you're looking for longer series, D. Gray Man has 103 episodes. Admittedly, I haven't seen the first season of D. Gray Man. I watched the first two episodes to see what it was about, got the gist of it and stopped. I haven't had time to watch the rest of season one before watching season two.

I don't want to sound personally biased against Shonen Jump properties, because I swear to god I'm not. I really love Naruto (episodes 30-85 anyway) and Hikaru no Go is one of my favorite things ever. I really like what I've seen of One Piece. I gave up on Bleach after 40 episodes just because it's hard to keep up a commitment to more than one long shonen series at a time (I was still watching Naruto).

So please don't think I'm biased when I say that D. Gray Man is like a drinking a smoothie made out of Bleach, Fullmetal Alchemist, and to a much lesser extent, Soul Eater.

In Bleach (at least in the first season), dead souls hang around Earth and need to be exorcised and there are these chains leading to the ghosts' hearts and they can become dangerous demons, yadda yadda. In Fullmetal Alchemist, young Ed and Al so mourn the death of their mother that they attempt to revive her using alchemy. When that doesn't quite work, the brothers join a military alchemy group with cool uniforms. In D. Gray Man, living people who mourn the souls of the dead are given a chance to revive loved ones by the demonic Millennium Earl. Unfortunately by “revive,” the Earl means that he turns said loved ones into horrible ghost-possessed fighting machines called Akuma. Fortunately, a secret organization called the Black Order can exorcise the Akuma, and get to wear cool uniforms while doing so.

I mentioned Soul Eater because the Millennium Earl reminds me a little bit of Death (Shinigami) in that series, insomuch as he hangs out in an extra-dimensional space with randomly floating jack-o'-lanterns. I have a lot of questions about the Millennium Earl. For example, what is he exactly? Why is he manning all those phones by himself? Why does he look like Mad Pierrot in Cowboy Bebop?

Anyway, our protagonist Allen Walker doesn't get much screen time in season two. We get an episode devoted to Allen's training with his master Cross, which is even worse than Naruto's time with Jiraiya (for the same reasons), and then the show shifts focus to other characters. I found Arystar Krory The Third and Miranda really annoying, but I thought Daisya Barry's backstory was alright. Most of season two is bulked out with stand alone stories about Akuma ghost-busting. Finally, at the end of the season, there's a really cool all-out battle in Barcelona between hundreds of Akuma and the Black Order. Three Exorcists die in season two, along with 148 lower-ranked "Finders."

The most interesting, redeeming bit of the show comes at the very end of the last episode of the season. A soldier asks if the dead bodies will be sent home to their families:

"The deceased are to be cremated and buried here on the grounds. The Black Order has been perfectly clear. There are no exceptions. Contacting the families of the deceased is forbidden. Any information about members of the Order, living or dead, is strictly classified… Can you give me your word that those in your unit who died won't be turned into Akuma? Or that your leader's son won't do absolutely anything to bring his dead father back to life? Their last mission in protecting the world is to vanish altogether."

OK, that's really cool. Maybe this detail came up in season one and I missed it.

That is so morbid! Can you imagine if a cartoon like this aired in America (before midnight)? Almost every single episode of D. Gray Man hinges on the death of a loved one. We're barely allowed to show people getting kicked in the face on American kid's cartoon shows, but D. Gray Man aired at 6 PM in Japan. With a timeslot like that, it's no wonder the DVDs were best sellers in Japan.

D. Gray Man isn't morbid just because people die, it's also a show about people in a state of desperate mourning. Thanks to the Millennium Earl, almost no one gets to reach stage five of grief, "Acceptance." Everyone is stuck in stage three, "Bargaining." (By the way, in Hikaru no Go, hikaru goes through all five, and it's fricking amazing.)

If you're into the morbidity and broody darkness, check out Fullmetal Alchemist (start with the original) and maybe Witch Hunter Robin (a good show for Halloween). Maybe, just maybe, if I had never seen FMA or Bleach (or to a much lesser extent Soul Eater), I might have more patience for D. Gray Man. As it is, D. Gray Man is the sort of show I will expend absolutely no effort to watch. If it were on Cartoon Network at 2 AM on a Saturday after Moribito (which is really solid, by the way), I would probably not change the channel.[TOP]

By contrast, Magikano is a show I would actively avoid if I wasn't getting paid to review it - and I'm saying that based on the DVD cover alone. I figured (again, based on the DVD jacket) that this would totally be a "Perishable" title, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that I laughed out loud at least once per episode. Unfortunately, that meant the entire column would be "Rental Shelf" this week. Argh!

Like D. Gray Man, there's nothing new in Magikano. However, Magikano is a parody of the magic girlfriend genre, and that made it tolerable. According to some film theorists, parodies occur at the end of a genre's life cycle. Since the Urusei Yatsura manga started in 1978, perhaps we're finally nearing an end to magical girlfriends? (Call me out if I'm wrong on this, but was Urusei Yatsura the first ever magical girlfriend title?)

Ayumi is a witch from a magic family. She's been cursed, and the curse can only be removed by Haruo, a typical loser high school student with no personality to speak of. Unfortunately, Haruo's magical powers haven't awakened yet. He's been living blissfully unaware in our Muggle world, not realizing that his three energetic sisters are magically inclined. Haruo and his witch-sisters live alone. (If there was an explanation about what happened to their parents, I missed it.) The youngest sister is obsessed with money, another one loves to eat and exercise, and the oldest one, well, let's get back to her in a moment.

For Ayumi, awakening Haruo's powers also means "making a man out of him," and that's where the sexy fun begins. Ayumi becomes Haruo's live-in maid. It's such a trope at this point that all the characters immediately accept their new house guest. Suddenly Magikano is like an anime version of Bewitched, only sexier. (Was Bewitched supposed to be sexy back in the day?)

Granted, there are some un-sexy parts of the show. Haruo's sister Maika is obsessed with him in an unhealthy way. This is a parody, of course, and it's played for laughs, but I'm always disturbed by incest plotlines. In episode ten, each of Haruo's sisters parades out of the bathroom clad only in a towel. Haruo doesn't react, even though something sexy is happening - and that's good! That's healthy! There is no incest and we can all feel good about it, until Haruo's youngest sister also parades out in just a towel with the same sexy sparkle effect asking to drink some nice cold milk. Ewwwwwww.

Anyway, the episode then redeems itself (and perhaps the rest of the series) with a sarcastic pair of talking cat panties. I mean, there is a pair of underwear with a cat face on it and it talks. This is the Magikano equivalent of D's chatty hand in Vampire Hunter D. The panties triple Ayumi's magic powers when worn, but can only be removed by the boy she has a crush on. She can't even shower. I have other questions, like about bathroom use, but let's suspend disbelief. Suspend!

Most of the show is paint-by-numbers. You've got your hot springs episode, your swimsuit/pool episode, your sports festival episode, your cultural festival episode complete with a school play, your Christmas episode, and a New Years episode. In a 13 episode show, that's half of the episodes. Fortunately the writing is funny enough to carry us through the clichés.

This dub is great. They've changed a few jokes in order to punch up the script. It's not a Crayon Shin-chan level rewrite, but it is solidly funny. The writers/voice actors manage to include the term "beeeeeeeyotch" at least once per episode in a way that's both funny and inoffensive.

All of the characters dance in SD mode during the credits, in a direct parody of Urusei Yatsura. (In the old days of anime in the U.S., fans would sync up Urusei Yatsura's end credit to the theme from Bewitched.) If you've never watched Rumiko Takahashi's Urusei Yatsura, you should check it out. I tend to like older magical girl shows because the male leads have personalities, probably because they were around before dating sim games. That's why I like Video Girl Ai and DNA². Haruo's lack of personality is only tolerable because this is parody.

In terms of comedy, Magikano is a halfway point between Galaxy Angels and Excel Saga. In fact, director Seiji Kishi also directed Galaxy Angel Rune. I think the Galaxy Angel anime could do better in the U.S. if it were broadcast (I mean, what wouldn't?). It's stupid fun. The often over-looked Magical Witch Punie-chan is another really funny parody show worth checking out.

Magikano is not as funny as School Rumble. There's no CG mammoth, after all. I wouldn't buy the DVDs because I'll never watch it again… well, maybe I'd watch the part with the talking cat panties again.[TOP]

There you have it. 100% rentals.

I was actually afraid of the forums before I started this column, but everyone was really nice last week. It's great that so many people read this column, and they pay so much attention to detail. In my five years writing online manga reviews, I don't think my reviews were ever subject to so much scrutiny. I'm hoping I can improve my writing here, thanks to all the feedback.

This week's shelves are from Billy Bennet of South Carolina, who's been collecting anime for almost 5 years.

"I've always liked anime even back when I was little and didn't know what it was other than a cool looking cartoon. I loved Battle of the Plantes/G-Force as a kid and it went from there. Nowadays I find tons of things to watch and unfortunately for my bank account, I buy most of them. I just got into buying figures/statues last year and really like the look of some of them. I really like the poseability of the Figma stuff and as a result I own quite a few.

On to the shelves:

This first set does have other things besides anime on it but it's all animated so it can't be all bad.... right?

The second picture has most of my collection on it as well as some photo albums in the lower center. And yes, that's one of my cats who decided she wasn't moving for the picture.

This next pic is of my main group of anime figures. It rests on top of a case of misc. Star Wars stuff so ignore that bit. :) There are also some random gashapon in the front along with other things that a friend in Osaka sent me for giggles.

And lastly, here is another shelf with random 80's toys that I also collect. If you notice, there are 4 Gundam model kits I built on that shelf along with some Microman/Micronauts stuff from when I was a kid. Those toys were so cool..."

Amazing!

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


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