Shelf Life
Tears to Fears

by Erin Finnegan, Dec 21st 2009

I was just listening to WOXY's Holiday Mixer on internet radio, and I heard an amazing cover of a song I'd never heard before! Apparently, Harvey Danger has more than one song, and at some point recorded the single “Sometimes You Have to Work on Christmas,” about working at a movie theater on Christmas Day. The considerably more cheerful cover I heard was by The Long Winters. In high school, I worked at a movie theater, but I can't remember if I worked on Christmas Day. This column is dedicated to everyone who has to work that day, and to those of you collecting unemployment because you are not owed holiday pay by your former employer!

This week I found some pleasant surprises among my low expectations.

I read a couple chapters of the Bamboo Blade manga in Yen Plus and I wasn't particularly interested. It was a pleasant surprise to find out that this anime series is really decent. I'm not saying it knocked my socks off, and maybe my expectations were too low for this one, so I was surprised to find this a very pleasant rental. I mean, if I was renting this on Netflix, I would be pleased.

This is a story about a high school kendo team. I'm kind of a sucker for sports stories, since I ran cross country and track in high school. I don't know that much about kendo. Fortunately, the series provides just enough information at the right times to keep things interesting.

Kojirou is a part-time teacher and kendo coach who's starving—he's literally borrowing money from students between paychecks. A teacher friend and old kendo buddy promises him one year of free sushi at his dad's shop if Kojirou's girl's kendo team can beat his school's team. Unfortunately, most of Kojirou's team graduated last year. Only the cheerfully hardcore Kirino remains, so it's up to her to recruit new members, and she doesn't know about the bet.

What's weird is that the faceoff happens not at the end of the series, but in episode five. After the bet, there are more plot points and developments, with plenty of character-based twists and turns that are refreshingly unpredictable.

Coach Kojirou and a freshman named Tama end up being the dual protagonists of the series. The super-talented Tama grew up in a dojo and regularly beats old men at kendo, but in the classroom, she's shy and withdrawn. At first, she doesn't want to join the team out of what seems like apathy. Tama also watches a lot of anime and tokusatsu, which I thought was a cop-out at first (nowadays you've got to have a token otaku character), but she won me over eventually. Making such a passive character interesting is hard to write. Tama's intensity in matches and her new found friends make her an interesting character.

Before I watched Bamboo Blade, I was worried it might turn out like a harem title. I don't mean to say harem shows can't be good, or that every harem follows this rule, but my big problem with harems is that the girl characters are sometimes just archetypes without really having personalities, like in Sister Princess or Magikano. Bamboo Blade does the exact opposite; every character is developed, and we see how her unique personality affects her kendo matches. The opposing team's characters in particular are well rounded, despite their brief introductions. For example, one girl is so depressed from a fight with her boyfriend, she's losing her match abysmally… then she gets a text message apology and her game is back on! I thought that was very true to high school sports, where young athletes have a hard time leaving their troubles at the door during competitions.

Kirino has a personality that's kind of grating for the first two episodes, and her shrill dubbed voice makes her nearly unbearable, but fortunately she calms down quickly and fades out of the spotlight. Everyone else on the dub sound reasonably like their Japanese counterparts.

It's kind of annoying that this set is only the first half of the series. There are no real extras to speak of. This might be more Shelf Worthy if it were the whole series, but honestly, it's the kind of show I'll only watch once. It makes me want to watch J-dramas about girls' kendo teams.[TOP]

It's too bad the characters in Blue Drop didn't take up kendo, because they would've found it really useful in the imminent alien invasion. To be honest, if you reversed all the genders in Blue Drop, I'd be much more interested in it.

This series follows Mari, a girl whose parents were killed along with everyone on her home island in a crazy freak typhoon under mysterious circumstances (probably aliens). Mari can't remember the tragedy, and has been raised by her grandmother. As the series opens she enrolls in an all-girl boarding school, which is difficult as she's been homeschooled until now.

The series gets off to an interesting start. Mari's new roommate, Hagino, immediately tries to strangle her to death. I had some bad roommates in college, but none of them tried to kill me! (At least not in the first five minutes.) Instead of telling the R.A., or talking about it to anyone (Holy sh*t! Call the cops!), Mari doesn't mention the strangling incident and ends up having to sit next to Hagino in class. That's pretty rough luck.

At first glance, Blue Drop seems to be two wildly unrelated anime series stitched together badly into one mediocre show. The A plot focuses on Mari and Hagino having spats like shojo love interests. The B plot is about some all-female aliens hanging out on huge CG battleship/submarine thingies in Earth's oceans, undetected. There's some alien in-fighting, some lesbian revenge, and some plotting to take over the Earth. At the end of the series, the two plots finally collide. The A and B plot even look very different; the color palette on board the alien ships is warm and bright, with a lot of CG. The palette for the school scenes is muted and realistic. If you were watching this broadcast, you could easily think you changed the channel by accident. Did I mention the hot lesbian invaders' uniforms happen to be all-white swimsuits?

I've never read The Last Uniform (that's uniform, not unicorn), but it's my understanding that it belongs to a genre of manga aimed at male readers about idealized female friendships walking the boundary of homosexuality - in other words, yuri for dudes. I think Blue Drop belongs firmly in this genre. Will Hagino and Mari's friendship turn into something more?

Most of the yuri I've seen is not the yuri I'd like to see. I want to see realistic girls involved in non-tragic romance. For example, I really enjoyed the manga Rica 'tte Kanji!?, because it's about lesbians in real life, and it's funny. I also enjoy Hayate X Blade, a sword-fighting comedy where lesbianism is just a matter of fact. The girls of Kaio Academy in Blue Drop are idealized girls. I think High School Girls is the only series where an all-girl school is explored with an enjoyable sense of reality. Brother, Dear Brother is crazy, but I think it may also be a more realistic all girl school than something like Strawberry Panic!.

Hagino turns out to be an alien (you find out in episode one or two, so this is hardly a spoiler). Is Mari's otherworldly romance bound for a tragic end? They can't be together because she's an alien, but the tragic ending I'm trying hard not to spoil seems symbolic; it's more like they can't be together because they're gay.

There is no dub, and no extras. The trailers I'd seen for this on other Sentai Filmworks releases were just long pans of the CG battleship, but clearly they should've focused on the yuri.

I didn't really care about Hagino and Mari, frankly. If they were more realistic girls (or realistic lesbians) or hot dudes, maybe I would be more interested. [TOP]

I'm much more interested in Tears to Tiara; it appealed to me as a tabletop gamer. I was really suspicious of this title because it's based on an eroge RPG videogame. I don't have a lot of luck with series based on videogames, let alone erotic games, so it came as a huge surprise that this title is a lot of fun.

This story borrows characters from Arthurian and Welsh legends, adds in some elves, and renames the Roman Empire "The Divine Empire". In this version, Arthur is the First Warrior of a tribe of Gaels, and they depart the island of Erin (it means "Ireland" in Gaelic) and head over Albion (England) to live in the castle of Avalon (which happens to be staffed by house elves who look like maids).

The action takes off when some evil dudes resurrect the Demon King Arawn. Turns out he's a hottie, and Arthur's sister Riannon offers to marry him. Arawn picks up a new wife for (roughly) three episodes in a row, but that plotline is quickly dropped (and rarely referenced) in favor of some really swell sword and sorcery adventuring.

Morgan, Second Warrior of the tribe, is pretty ridiculous, while still being a very likeable character. She's a bit of a savage, wears only a loincloth, and is an extremely high level archer. I like that she's a fierce, hard-drinking warrior chick, so much so that I'm willing to tolerate the extremes the animators went to in order to carefully draw her under-boob bouncing.

In another episode, Llyr, a Selkie/Water Elf, learns how to milk a cow, and in a heinous hentai joke, she ends up covered with milk. It seems really out of place with the rest of series, which is well-animated, well-paced, well-written, and free of hentai gags. If it weren't for all the extraneous marriages and this one milk incident, you could forget this was based on an eroge.

Often in shows with multiple love interests, I start to get annoyed at the additional ladies who show up as the series goes on. I'm interested in straight-up love stories and love triangles, so when suitor after additional suitor shows up I end up rolling my eyes more and more. In this show, the opposite happens. Every new girl who joins the band of Gaels is either a high level fighter or a magic user. For example, Octavia is a super-elite Divine Empire soldier who kicks ass constantly. That's 10,000 times better than meeting yet another tsundere or childhood friend.

As a tabletop gamer, it's hard not to picture this series as someone's campaign. It's a campaign that's going really, really well, which is a nice change of pace compared to the Dungeons and Dragons campaign I play in real life (is my DM reading this?). Also, I picture the Tears to Tiara campaign being played out by a group of dudes who like making hot female characters. I know it's based on videogames, but it's funnier in my imagination.

I thought it was a little odd when they added an elf with a mining proficiency to the party. Clearly, Rathty should be a dwarf, but everyone in this series is pretty, so they can't have dwarves. Rathty looks uncannily like a Kingdom Hearts character with a giant hammer and a sweatshirt with huge ears.

This is a really fun show, with very nice animation and a compelling plot and really solid pacing. However, this is only half the series and there is no dub and no extras. At $39.98 SRP it's not really worth owning, but on sale for $20 you might want to pick it up if you're a fantasy RPG fan. [TOP]

I don't think I'm getting any anime for Christmas this year. I mean, I've only been writing this column for a few months and my collection has expanded considerably with all these review copies. I'm not taking a break from the column, either, so that means I have to subject my parents to Dragon Ball Z this week, and maybe have them watch Evangelion 1.01 You Are (Not) Alone as well. It'll be interesting to see their reactions!

This week's shelves are from Devin:

"The first picture is of my anime and manga collection. While it is small, at just under two hundred anime titles and fifty manga's I am quite proud of it. The second picture however is of my most prized possession. This is a gift given to me by Kubo-sensei for my birthday after interviewing him at Jump Festa 09. It is a hand drawn and autographed picture of Ichigo as a soul reaper. As you will see from the rest of the pictures the room has been Bleach themed after this gift. There is a various assortment of poster models and figures. The last few pictures are of what I like to call the junk shelf because it's an unorganized collaboration of everything I lack a place for."



Sweet stuff!

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