Shelf Life
One Love

by Erin Finnegan, May 10th 2010

What is your reason for studying Japanese? I hate having to answer that question, in Japanese, to Japanese people I just met. No one would ask me why I was studying English if I wasn't a native speaker. When I'm talking to nerds, I feel comfortable saying that I want to read manga in Japanese to justify my Book Off habit. But when I have to explain this to an ordinary Japanese person (a non-nerd), I'm embarrassed. I don't want to admit to a brand-new acquaintance that I'm some kind of weirdo. Plus I'm a terrible liar. I won't sound convincing if I hide in the nerd closet with some weak excuse about desperately wanting to read this pancake box, for example.

Fortunately, I learned a word for "secret" from Vegeta this weekend; naisho. My reason for learning Japanese is an embarrassing secret: riyuu ga hazukashi naisho desu. (Maybe I should say himitsu instead of naisho?)

I said, in a previous column, that the Dragon Box was Shelf Worthy. It is certainly a Shelf Worthy DVD release, with one useful little color hardcover episode guide per set and a reasonable price point. The content, on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired.

What is up with Americans that Dragon Ball Z is more well-liked here than in Japan? The original Dragonball is delightful, but DBZ is obviously where Toriyama stopped caring. As legend has it, his editors wouldn't let him quit drawing one of the best-selling manga series of all time. Toriyama started drawing uninspired pages with just two panels each. To cut corners and/or rebel, he put one "Hame" per page for the old kamehameha wave.

The anime based on that manga is just as lackluster. In the Namek Saga, episodes 43-74, our heroes arrive on the budget-saving planet Namek, with its identical rocky backgrounds and easy-to-draw lollipop-like trees. The weather is always pink-skied as Namek's three suns never set. From an animation standpoint, this is brilliant, because not only can all the backgrounds be reused, but you never need to switch color palettes for nighttime or evening. In the original Dragon Ball, Goku visited hard-to-draw crowded cities. Namek has been graciously depopulated. Goku trains alone in a one-room spaceship for 30 episodes while his friends train with King Kai over reused backgrounds from the previous season. The characters have taken to animation-efficient flying instead of walking. Sometimes they fly so fast you can't see them at all. CHA-CHING CHA-CHING CHA-CHING!

I first started watching DBZ in the middle of the Freeza Saga (episodes 75-84) when I was in high school, probably around episode 84. Cartoon Network was airing two episodes back to back every weekday. It astounded me that it took an entire month to defeat Freeza (and I started mid-Freeza Saga). The many cut-aways to side characters impressed me, as well as the long power-ups, the near-constant death threats, and the sheer amount of time spent summarizing and previewing. As an amateur procrastinator, I felt I was watching the work of a master. Somehow the show drew me in anyway, and I kept watching.

DBZ exists in a mystical space somewhere between soap operas and professional wrestling. In soap operas, time passes incredibly slowly, as the camera lingers on a large cast of characters caught in a complicated plot web, inscrutable to non-fans. DBZ does exactly that, but instead of who's marrying or cheating on whom, we're given musclebound aliens fighting one-on-one battles. You can watch a random episode of Dragon Ball and comprehend what's going on; not so with DBZ. It's like watching a random episode of Days of Our Lives combined with a random NWO match. (Disclaimer: I don't know anything about wrestling.)

The original Dragon Ball has a lot of jokes and whimsy. Young Goku was a jovial naïve protagonist, but his son Gohan is a scared and sad lead character. In the Namek saga, Gohan's encounters with Vegeta are terrifying. Instead of Goku training for fun, now he trains to bring his friends back to life. All the fun was drained out of the show. Everything else is stripped away down to the one thing viewers were tuning in for: the fighting.

Nevertheless, some of the more absurd elements are still amusing. At one point a grasshopper appears out of thin air and says "Hi! I'm Gregory!" The obsession with power levels is unintentionally funny. It is from these odd moments that persistent internet memes are born. In the last set we had "Over 9,000" and in this set, Freeza's henchman Burter fires his laser.[TOP]

I've never read the DBZ manga or more than the first volume of One Piece, but I've got to assume that the GIGO theory applies to both titles.

This might be the finest box of One Piece yet. Two previous sets lead up to the climactic liberation of Alabasta from the evil Crocodile. This volume is all pay-off boss battles. And fortunately, unlike in Naruto, battles between key characters are restricted to one or two episodes each.

Much of this set takes place over a dramatic countdown. In 40 minutes, a bomb will go off in the town square, destroying not only the rebel army and the king's soldiers but also the army of so-called Billions who have manipulated the rebellion. Time slows down with each successive episode as our heroes search for the bomb. In one episode, just four minutes of time pass within the show.

The time manipulation is brilliantly executed for dramatic effect. It's almost as anxiety-inducing as watching Sam and Frodo fumbling the One Ring on Mount Doom. Towards the end of the countdown, long bits of explanatory dialog becoming infuriating. At the beginning of each episode, at least one character delivers 20 seconds of dialog explaining what's going on with the bomb, presumably for the benefit of anyone who may have missed yesterday's episode. Fortunately 20 seconds don't pass in One Piece time.

This set is great, but it isn't perfect. I couldn't smell any filler episodes, but there were some odd moments. In one key scene, Luffy suddenly takes a nap. He claims to feel refreshed from his in-show 15 second nap before the showdown with Crocodile, but I suspect the writers were stalling for time.

This set does one thing absolutely right. While Luffy gets to confront Crocodile personally, stopping a war isn't so easy. It's hard to say without too many spoilers, but even after our heroes have removed the reasons for the conflict, the war rages on.

It's surprising to see such depth in a series for children. The desert battle reminded me of the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003 when Saddam Hussein was overthrown and Bush declared victory. Somehow, the Iraq War continued for years. These episodes of One Piece aired in 2002, but they seem oddly prophetic.

Princess Vivi cries and shouts throughout the season, trying to stop the fighting any way she can. She teeters on the brink of despair for her kingdom. I thought she was slightly annoying in earlier volumes, but in this set, she reminded me of Nausicaä. In the Nausicaä anime and manga, an image is repeated of Princess Nausicaä with her arms held straight out, trying to stop the war. (P.S. Nausicaä is one of my favorite things ever; I've even cosplayed as Nausicaä.)

At the end of the arc, Vivi must decide whether to continue traveling with Luffy and his crew. After such a grand adventure, she faces suffering the fate of all Doctor Who sidekicks (excluding Adric, Donna, and maybe Rose). Even without sidekick experience, it's tough to plan the course of the rest of your life at 16. I got emotionally invested in Vivi's choice, despite not liking the character much. That is great television writing (or manga writing).

We're also introduced this season to Nico Robin, a new character with a badass super power and an interesting backstory. She might be my new favorite One Piece character.

You might need to watch most of the Alabasta arc for these episodes to have the right dramatic weight, but it's worth it.[TOP]

I missed this yuri gem from last season. Some column readers clued me in when I was complaining about the lack of real lesbian series in some of my previous reviews.

It's refreshing to watch a yuri series where the characters are actually gay and don't attend an all-girl school. Plus, unlike Otoboku, where the unrealistic cross-dresser is occasionally felt up but never found out, the cross-dressing boy in Sasameki is the real deal—his wig falls off sometimes.

Our protagonist Sumika, at 5'7" (giant for Japan), is athletic and boyish. She's the black belt heir to a karate dojo and has the top grades in her class. And she's in love with her best friend Ushio. Ushio is girl-crazy for cute little things, the opposite of Sumika's "type". Ushio's gayness is explained to the girls' new friend, Kiyori, who is nerdy enough to be in the brass band and perfectly accepting of Ushio's sexual orientation.

Soon Ushio and Sumika catch two other girls kissing after school. They befriend these lesbians, who attempt to form a Girl's Club for like-minded individuals. The impromptu fifth club member is Masaki, the aforementioned cross-dresser, who pretends to be a girl periodically and has a crush on Sumika.

If Sasameki was an American series, I think it would be more political. The girls would have started an LGBT club. Its subsequent rejection by the school's administration could be a reason to protest. But Sasameki doesn't go in that direction. (Plus their club's proposal was pretty shady.)

The show is torn between reality and the otaku yuri fantasy. About half of the episodes are very good, true-to-life high school romance. The other half fall victim to anime tropes. For example, Sasameki dedicates an entire episode to Masaki's younger sister (Age 12) who is unhealthily obsessed with taking pictures of her older brother dressed as a girl and posting them on the internet. She even hits on her brother. At one point she falls on top of him and says "Sometimes I can barely contain myself!" That episode made my skin scrawl.

Ushio's older brother is secretly the author of a thinly veiled parody of Maria Watches Over Us light novels. This comes into play as the show introduces a fifth potential lesbian, Azusa. Azusa is an otaku for Ushio's brother's novels. I think the series stands up on its own, without the need to acknowledge Maria-sama fandom. It's almost as if Azusa is needed to explain another type of lesbian, a yuri readership who loves Maria-sama but may or may not be gay. If Azusa really is queer, I feel bad for her, as the fifth lesbian in a five-lesbian school.

This show has a great pair of beach and pool episodes. Anime staple swimsuit bosom comparisons are balanced out with ice cream headaches and one painfully realistic belly-flop off the high dive to impress a girl. It's worth watching the series up to this point just to hear Miyako's one-liner before a scary drop on a poolside thrill ride.

The animation is a little slow and moody at times, but it does a good job of establishing tone, weather, and seasons. The director, Eiji Suganuma, was the key animator for a lot of classics like Gunbuster, Riding Bean, and Char's Counterattack. The music builds the slow, melancholic romance in a nice way.

Sasameki proves you can't really throw the baby out with the bath water. If you can get past a few trope-heavy episodes, this is a really fulfilling series.[TOP]

I had a job interview this week. The part I hate about job interviews (besides getting dressed up) is the part where I end up picturing myself working wherever it is for days, even if I never stood a chance of working there. "This would be my commute…" I'll think on the way to the interview, and afterwards, "Maybe I'll end up eating lunch over at that cafe a lot." For some reason, I really hate all that wasted imagination if I don't actually get the job.

This week's collection is from Jack Simpson:

"I've been collecting anime for 3 years now (I'm 17) and once you start collecting, you never stop. As you can see I've nearly filled my whole shelf up and I desperately need maybe another, small shelf to continue collecting but I just don't have the space in my room.

I've got pretty much everything on my shelf: anime, manga, figures and video games, it's just the convenience of going to my shelf and pulling out whatever I want to keep me busy.

My favourite item on my shelf would have to be my New Fist of the North Star DVD Boxset. I never really got into the original series but this just kicks so much ass I might have to."



Not bad!

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