Shelf Life
Salary Cap

by Erin Finnegan, Jul 12th 2010

Last weekend was pretty rough. This season of Soul Eater wasn't very good, and it was my last set of DVD screeners. The titles that turned up in my rental queue were a little too old for Shelf Life. After some discussion with my editors, we decided I ought to do some shorter reviews of new streaming titles and throw in the older stuff anyway. Next week look forward to a review of Occult Academy and a few other brand new titles.

Meanwhile, I checked out some series from last season. I fell asleep during the first episode of Cross Game, so that was out (I might give it a second chance later). I disastrously rented the yaoi porno title No Money (volume two arrived first), and two episodes later, I was so disturbed I sent it back. I don't dislike yaoi, but the protagonist looked really young and had basically been sold into prostitution and was coming down with Stockholm Syndrome… so no. A world of "no".

I also rented one disc of Rental Magica, which was a much bigger winner than No Money. Trust me.

As anime fans, we know most anime isn't original material. It's usually adapted from manga, or in Rental Magica's case, light novels, and the source material itself is often unoriginal elements mixed together from other successful titles like ingredients in a smoothie. In a worst case scenario, fruit you've never eaten before tastes like a total cliché. Alternatively, sometimes anime made of familiar elements blend together into a great new shake. Or anime series.

Rental Magica consists of a lot of the same-old-same-old elements: some witches, a demon dog, a pair of childhood friends, a protagonist who wants to protect his friends, our third Dullahan in two weeks, a loud blonde foreign girl (think Kaere Kimura), and a kid with a demon eye like in Black Butler or D.Gray-man (or Code Geass). Somehow all of the elements build on each other nicely with high quality animation, attractive character designs, and a plot that never felt old even if it was recycled. (Reduce and reuse!)

Right out of the gate, the DVD menu presents us with a choice of either broadcast or chronological episode order (a la Haruhi Suzumiya). I went with broadcast order. Anime almost never gives us true chronology anyways; it's standard nowadays to reveal important bits of the backstory in flashbacks right before the end. I figure the broadcasters have a reason to switch up the order, and that reason is probably to show at least one cool fight scene in the first episode, often before the credits, usually in a way that barely makes sense (like in Kamichama Karin or Moonlight Mile). In Rental Magica's case, the first broadcast episode shows off a fight with some demon dogs so we can see everyone's magic powers before their characters are introduced. I don't have a problem with that.

Itsuki, the kid with the magic eye, is the president of Astral, a company that rents out mages. He inherited the position at a young age, so he's not very good at his job yet (like Hime in Yozakura Quartet). Fortunately, his office team does their best to support him, even if they're not making much money on each job (like in Gintama, or oddly enough, RIN - Daughters of Mnemosyne).

Each character specializes in a different magic system. There's a Shinto specialist, an onmyouji, a Buddhist specialist, and a few other characters, as yet unexplored. It's a pleasant dynamic like a role playing game. Their party needs a mage, a priest, a fighter, etc., and everyone has chosen characters from one crazy expansion pack or another like Oriental Adventures.

In one nice scene, Adelicia, the brash foreign girl, berates Itsuki and his agency for not being world-class enough. After Adelicia takes off, Honami (the childhood friend of Itsuki) cleans up the magic in the area, complaining that Adelicia was too careless and contaminated the area with her enchantments. I think that's an interesting dynamic; the rich obnoxious foreigner doesn't take care to clean up the environment and care for the natural world like the Japanese witch does (even if that Japanese witch was trained abroad in Celtic magic).

I didn't see much of this show, but I was never bored. Events seemed to be moving forward, regardless of the episode order. I'm interested in seeing where this is going. I'm not thrilled with the idea of a maid and a very young character who constantly calls Itsuki "brother," but maybe Rental Magica will be good anyway. [TOP]

Uraboku has a similar plot – a secret government agency regulates magic – but a totally different execution.

"I'm completely unwanted, without a place anywhere!' angsty teen orphan Yuki cries a few episodes in. "Why was I even born?"

A monologue opens each episode:

"Only I know your pain… Your uncertainty… If only we could be together forever. I'll say it as many times as you wish, I will not betray you!"

Uraboku is such obvious crack for teenage girls that it's hard not to make fun of it. I had to keep telling myself that I, too, was once an angsty teenage girl. I thought my feelings of alienation and ennui were unique, although now I'm pretty sure most teenagers feel that way. Besides, it's just not cool to casually ghettoize women's entertainment.

Uraboku is blatant wish fulfillment, not that there's anything wrong with that. Yuki is nervous about leaving the orphanage when he graduates high school and he's worried about finding a job. Meanwhile, his latent psychic powers are getting him bullied at school. It's a little Harry Potter, although "ESPer" anime series have been around since the early 80's. (I'm hoping the show will end with a "NOOOOO! BOOM!" moment.)

Miraculously, some cute relatives appear out of nowhere and offer Yuki a new place to live, in Tokyo, along with a job, and tell him that he's a powerful psychic who was pretty much born to be the healer of their clan. Lucky for Yuki, he is wanted, there is a place for him, and it happens he was literally born for a reason (answering the questions above).

It gets better. A hot dude named Zess is Yuki's fighting partner, like in Loveless (another angst-fest, again, not that there's anything wrong with that). By episode seven, it's heavily hinted that Yuki was Zess's female lover in his past life. Never mind Yuki being a dude, I would've killed in high school to have some hot guy appear out of nowhere and tell me that we were destined to be together. (And that he'd never betray me? Bonus!)

They all go to live happily ever after in a secret castle named the "Twilight Mansion" handily located in a pocket dimension park in Shinjuku. Shinjuku is incredibly convenient - and incredibly crowded, but thanks to magic, our heroes won't have to worry about that!

The only other residents of the castle are a cute doctor (he's a little scruffy, like Woodchuck in Lodoss Wars or Fujita in Kitchen Princess), and another cute guy who wears Jamiroquai/Mad Hatter hats.

It's almost happily ever after; everyone is keeping Yuki's past life a secret for some dark reason. A long-haired bespectacled bishonen is heading some kind of conspiracy that everyone seems to know about except Yuki.

That rounds out a nice single-gender harem show (Yuki's past life as a girl notwithstanding) . The character designs are a lot like Neo Angelique, which is to say the guys are hot and the only girl is boring - good thing she's not the protagonist! In Neo Angelique, the chibi moments were confined to DVD Extras. Uraboku throws the chibi comedy into the show, and it's a little jarring to go from such highly detailed character designs into super-simple SD mode. They're not quite as good at that transition as Gravitation.

This really isn't a bad show, and if it were a DVD it would be Rental Shelf. It just falls into a category of shows I'm not overly fond of, somewhere between Ceres, Celestial Legend and Descendants of Darkness. (And by the way, I like Gravitation…) [TOP]

Since Uraboku is really girly, I had to counter it by watching something totally manly.

Admittedly, this is an older show and Bamboo reviewed volume 1 in the distant past. In fact, as far as I can tell, the company distributing Salaryman Kintaro, Arts Magic, isn't around anymore. Fortunately, you can still find the DVDs used, and at a steep discount. I plan on collecting the rest of 'em.

In my humble opinion, Salaryman Kintaro can teach you more about Japanese culture than other series. You've seen the School Cultural Festival, Obon, and Tanabata (the star festival), a million times in other anime series, but how much do you know about Japanese business culture?

Kintaro is a widower and ex-bosozoku who has given up his blue-collar, law-breaking days to raise his son by becoming a white collar office worker. The five seasons worth of live-action drama series and the live-action movie based on this 35-volume manga series are called White Collar Worker Kintaro in English. (The movie was probably imported because Takashi Miike directed it).

As an outsider to business culture himself, Kintaro is the perfect introduction into the world of salarymen for non-Japanese viewers. Kintaro is just as weirded out as I am to learn that his coworkers don't get on the elevator with the higher-ups, leaving the top executives to ride alone in un-crowded elevators up to their offices.

Cultural footnotes would have been helpful in this release. For example, the pink-uniformed office ladies have the kind of low-level make-coffee-until-you-get-married office jobs that haven't existed in America since the days of Mad Men (at least not institutionally). Instead of giving us the finer points of salaryman terminology, the translation script for the first three episodes is pretty rough. I'm not great at catching spelling and grammar errors, and I saw quite a few. Episode two has a lot of un-translated, unexplained mahjong terms left in all caps.

The extras are very low-budget interviews with the producer and the director shot against a white background. As oldschool PBS as these interviews look, director Tomoharu Katsumata is old and experienced and has a lot of interesting things to say.

Speaking of low-budget… holy cow! This show has the opposite of the Initial D problem; Shuuichi Shigeno can draw cars but his character designs are pretty nasty. Kintaro has OK character designs, but some of the worst animated cars I've ever seen. I have a lot of sympathy, since I can't draw cars very well either. The women aren't very pretty and some of the evil executives have freakish eyebrows, but the meat of the story comes through despite the art.

Kintaro is an instigator, and like a sharp-shooting cowboy who's just drifted into town, he's stirring things up at the office and fighting the bad guys to clean up this town (or company). He's putting a few good men back in touch with their Y-chromosomes and slapping arrogant teenagers into shape in his free time. The teenagers thank him and at least one person cries manly tears in each episode. Kintaro walks the fine line between getting into a fist fight, getting a raise, and getting fired all at the same time.

It's a mystery to me why anyone would bother to import this anime series, but it's also a blessing, since this is the kind of show I want to watch. Kintaro is like the Kenshiro version of Division Chief Kosaku Shima, but only me and a dozen other nerds get that joke, so it's no wonder Arts Magic isn't distributing anime in North America anymore. [TOP]

Funimation knows better than to pick up such a niche title. That's why they've got more mainstream stuff like Soul Eater, which I also like, usually…

What happened, Soul Eater?! I thought you were cool, man. You used to get such good grades. What is it? Is it filler? Have you been smoking filler? Let me see what's in your backpack right now! It's those television writer friends of yours, isn't it? I haven't seen Atsushi Ohkubo around here in a while. What happened with you two?

I brought Soul Eater to a friend's 4th of July BBQ to watch. "I don't know, man," he said, "I watched the first episode and it wasn't very good…" I explained my love of Part 2 and he was unconvinced. Watching this set just made me seem like a crazy person with bad taste in anime. And I saved Soul Eater to bring over because I thought it was good!

The flimsy snow filled-arc that takes up most of this set reminded me of the stinky Naruto the Movie: Ninja Clash in the Land of Snow. The first Naruto movie is horrible because nothing in it affects the plot of the TV show. A new movie-only ninja clan is invented and the whole film feels like a stock plot for some non-Naruto movie about a princess where Naruto characters have been awkwardly inserted. In Soul Eater, covering up the character's costumes with bland colors and transporting them to monochromatic Antarctic landscape removes all the fun from the show. Half of Soul Eater is the stylized Halloween-themed Death City. When you take that away the show turns into one of those new 64 calorie beers that taste almost exactly like seltzer. In other words: Weak!

Our key protagonists are removed from the snow action to a jungle to face off with a butler/henchman with mosquito powers – but they never take off their coats and earmuffs. That drove me crazy. The jungle scenes reminded me of the only Doraemon movie I've ever seen, Doraemon: Nobita and the Legend of the Sun King. (Which was surprisingly good, even though I watched it in un-subbed Cantonese.) The entire jungle fight is unsatisfying, and the ancient weapon our heroes were fighting to win turns out to be a red herring. Thumbs down! At least it wasn't as bad as episode 151 of Naruto, the infamous episode where Naruto farts on a bug, wasting four episodes worth of work.

Even the Excalibur episode in this set wasn't as good as the previous two. It was just annoying, mostly because it involves an unimportant side character named Hero.

One thing I love about anime is the continuity that is desperately lacking from most American cartoon shows. The dramatic continuity usually comes solely from the manga artist, and filler arcs remove the continuity I love. I prefer shows that make up continuity that "counts," like the original Fullmetal Alchemist, any day of the week. [TOP]

Two weeks ago I sprained my left ankle for the first time ever. It was getting better, then on Wednesday night, I stepped on a piece of glass with my right foot! It was a shard from a broken drinking glass, about an inch long. The cut was pretty clean and it'll be OK, but I haven't seen so much of my own blood… possibly ever. I've never broken a bone or gotten stitches, and I still have my wisdom teeth, so injuring myself has been somewhat traumatic. I've been shuffling around the city; it's really inconvenient! I don't own a car and I live in a 4th floor walk-up. I miss going to the gym! Arg! I hope I can walk normally by Otakon, as the Baltimore Convention Center is huge.

This week's shelves are from someone else named Erin! She wrote:

" I've been an anime fan ever since I saw "Warriors of the Wind" as a kid back in the 80's, and even more so when I found out that was badly edited and dubbed. The cinderblock shelves are until I decide if where I live is for the long haul; they break down and rearrange so easily. On the import artbook shelves (most of those I got on eBay before rampant bootlegs and PayPal, when you had to go to the Post Office for International Money Orders), I made the statues of the fox-squirrels, the dragon Haku and the little painting of the Kodama with a Totoro."



Splendid!

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