Shelf Life
Germ Theory

by Erin Finnegan, Jul 19th 2010

Remember last month when I said I had some farewells and a congratulations? Well, now it can be told!

Farewell to Manga Recon, a part of PopCultureShock.com, which is closing up shop. I got my start writing reviews there back in 2005. I'm sad to see it go, but also relieved that I will no longer be held responsible for a few dozen review copies floating around my apartment that I never got around to reading. One of my very last reviews for the site was a eulogy for Swan, the very best of the now-dead CMX Manga line, and one of my top favorite manga series of all time.

RIP Peter Fernandez, the voice of and dub writer of Speed Racer. I got to meet him at SITACon 2008, where he was the guest of honor and I was also a guest. Fernandez had a fancy SUV, and gave me a ride to the convention from the hotel one day. It was weird to bum a ride from Speed Racer.

In happier news, a belated congratulations to blogger Ogiue Maniax, who is going to the Netherlands to get a doctorate degree in Sci-Fi manga. How cool is that? He's running a couple of Otakon panels if you want to meet him before he leaves.

This week I got a box of screeners in the mail, but by then was already checking out some of the new season's offerings. This week it is all streaming goodness.

I can't say that I liked this second season of Druaga quite as much as the first. Much, if not all, of the fun videogame humor is absent from season two, leaving it a bit dreary after the dramatic deaths and betrayals at the end of season one. The more I watched season two, the more I remembered the first season fondly. I gave season one a "Rental Shelf," but rest assured it is definitely Stream Worthy and completely available online.

If you're wondering how my rating system for streaming shows breaks down, I created this graphic for someone in the forums last week:

Maybe Bamboo would draw her chart a little differently, but this is the way I see it.

Anyway, season two begins six months after the end of season one. Our Hero Protagonist Jil and one member of the former party, Fatina, are trying their best to lead normal lives in a city now free from demons. By "trying their best," I mean that Fatina is a tour guide trying to win Jil's affections (she used to like his brother), and Jil is too depressed to hold down a job. Their lives are changed when Ki, a 4-year-old who is actually a powerful priestess who has been reduced in age after a battle, turns up and incites incidents and the quest to climb the tower is on once again. (Let the record show I was not creeped out by the mini-Ki.)

The first few episodes of the season are well-put-together. Jil and Fatina gathering a climbing party has the pleasant "let's get the old band back together" vibe of Shaolin Soccer. Later episodes turn more serious; one level of the tower-above-the-tower is a land of the dead, where they reunite with old party members and nearly forget the mission.

Several of the dungeon levels in this season are reminiscent of the old Dungeons & Dragons cartoon, which, by the way, is still occasionally marathoned on cable, if you set your TiVo to search for it. That is to say, there are several episodes of running-around-the-wasteland fighting too-powerful villains who have their own dramatic plots going on.

Anime reviewer Daryl Surat often complains that Gonzo shows don't end well, that the first few episodes are great and then Gonzo's series go downhill. I think Druaga comes to a satisfying, climactic conclusion. My main complaint about the ending only reflects badly on me as a viewer. For the life of me, I could not follow the army's dramatic subplot. While Jil faces his brother Neeba at the top of the second tower, a huge battle rages below involving different troop factions. There were too many characters outside of the dungeon hacking party of main characters and I couldn't keep track of them all. They weren't golf-club wielding mages (like Melt), so I forgot all their names and didn't really care what happened to them.

It's like how in Lord of the Rings; Return of the King Sam and Frodo are fighting Gollum on Mount Doom while a huge battle is fought between armies outside of Gondor. If Merry, Pippin, and other key characters weren't involved with the armies, I'd have trouble following the action. It's the same set-up for the end of Druaga, but main characters are not distributed as well across the action.[TOP]

Druaga is the only show I watched to the end this week. The rest of my reviews are mini-reviews of first two episodes of stuff from the new season. Stuff like Shiki.

Hitchcock's Psycho was famous not just for the shower scene, but also because the character who ought to be the protagonist (OMG spoilers!) gets killed after the first 20 minutes of the film. Likewise, Shiki's protagonist up and snuffs it before the end credits roll on episode one. That is damnably interesting.

Shiki gives off a vibe that's simultaneously Kamikaze Girls, Ghost Hound, and Higurashi no Naku Koro ni. Kamikaze Girls (a super-Shelf Worthy live action movie) was originally titled Shimotsuma Story, after the very rural town in Ibaraki prefecture. The protagonist was a fish-out-of-water Gothic Lolita, anxious to move away from her hick town. Likewise, Shiki starts off following Megumi, a girl with Goth Loli dresses in a small mountain town which specializes in making grave markers. The only interesting thing about the town is a huge European-style castle that was recently built up in the mountains.

Megumi goes to greet her new fancy castle-neighbors only to turn up missing in the forest later. Her eventual death is the latest in a series of suspicious deaths, and episode two follows the town doctor, who thinks he's got an epidemic on his hands. That's where the Higurashi strokes come in. I think urban, and even suburban, dwellers have a fear of the countryside. There is an inherent danger in living hundreds of miles from a major hospital and country folk are stereotyped as close-minded and insular. Being from the city automatically makes you a suspicious outsider in the countryside.

After Megumi's death, I hoped the rest of the series would be a Twin Peaks-style investigation where Megumi is Laura Palmer. In that regard, the second episode did not disappoint! I'm sure Shiki won't go into David Lynch mode, but I am genuinely curious to see where this is going.

Ghost Hound was a little more artsy, with experimental animation. Shiki has some creative character designs with bizarre five-pointed pigtail hair, but it isn't unlikeable. Higurashi had a much lower budget first season than either show, so I think Shiki is already a little better in that regard. It will probably not be quite as good as Higurashi or Ghost Hound, but it seems interesting enough.

Shiki is streaming on Funimation's website.[TOP]

I didn't know anything about Shiki going into it, and I was pleasantly surprised. I was already a huge fan of Moyashimon before I watched the first episodes of the new drama series.

I really, really loved the anime series of Moyashimon, and it is bizarre that the drama is available streaming but not the anime series. Volume two of the manga (which I also love) came out from Del Rey a couple weeks ago. (Del Rey spells it "Moyasimon".)

Sawaki is a college freshman with a very special talent-- he can see microbes. And they look cute. And they talk to him. It might be schizophrenia, save for the fact that Sawaki is able to correctly identify the microorganisms. He can tell deadly E. coli from the helpful Lactobacillus from yogurt. Mostly, the Lactobacillus talk about brewing… E. coli just wants to kill.

Better yet, the microbes don't look like they do under real microscopes. They look super-cute. When I was last in Japan, I bought tons of Moyashimon merchandise (but not E. coli, because I don't even want comical representations of those things in my home). I want to use my cell phone straps and key chains for an all-Moyashimon Christmas tree next year.

Anyway, at Sawaki's father's request, he attends an agricultural college just outside of Tokyo. The students scoop manure and artificially inseminate cows. There, Sawaki befriends his father's friend, a professor who knows about his secret ability and who has a penchant for eating highly fermented foods, like surströmming.

If it sounds a little educational, it is. Fortunately, the drama/manga/anime never falls to dry science. I mean, maybe I'm a nerd, and maybe I geek out over NPR's Radio Lab, so I might have a bias towards thinking that science is cool and learning is fun, but I think the cute germs and sake brewing facts overwhelm any academic dullness. Plus the manga wasn't written to be used in schools or sold to an educational market, so the source material is for entertainment purposes first, education second.

Watching the live action drama when I've read a little of the manga and watched the anime series is bizarre; everything is so condensed. Each episode covers a lot of manga and jumbles up the timeline of the story. It's a little like the (extremely loveable) Nodame Cantabile drama, which seemed to cover one entire volume of manga per episode.

Kato Natsuki plays the leather-wearing grad student assistant. I remembered her as Shigeru in the Hana Yori Dango drama. Natsuki brings a lot of life to her character. Nakamura Yuichi hasn't won me over as Sawaki yet, but maybe he'll get into the part as the show goes on. I hope he's not just there to be a pretty face (note to Japan: not all models can act).

So far, the Moyashimon drama seems to be handling the material well enough. The Professor's introductory moment with a walrus corpse is disappointingly skipped over, and the opening credits cannot match the anime opener in quality. The drama opening credits oddly contain character-based spoilers.

In general I am highly in favor of streaming j-dramas, even if they never get a DVD release. It seems like more and more manga series are getting dramas instead of anime adaptations. That's annoying to me as a fan of animation, but I love manga and some of the drama series are quite good.

I'm really happy that this is available legally so I can recommend it to my friends who are only casual fans (casual fans are not, in my experience, as resourceful as pirates when it comes to finding things online).

Moyashimon is streaming on Funimation's website.[TOP]

I should mention that I'm also going to start recommending Occult Academy to everyone I know in real life (in addition to column readers).

I don't want to jump the gun, but this is the Durarara!! of Summer 2010. I mean, I'm glad there's a new good show to look forward to each week now that Durarara!! is over. I don't want to speak too soon, but this might be even better than Durarara!!.

Maya claims she hates the occult, so it's just her luck that she's inherited a high school dedicated to the paranormal from her recently deceased father. Maya is such a hardcore skeptic that even as she fights her father's demon-possessed corpse at his funeral she screams to the panicking student body that "Ghosts aren't real!"

Nostradamus, magic, time travelers, ESPers, aliens, sliders, and every last spooky thing you can think of are included in this over-the-top action comedy. The dialog is witty and the plot snaps along over the first two episodes with the pacing of a finely tuned instrument.

The action moves swiftly from one scene to the next under what must have been one killer storyboard – and this, this, my friends, is great direction. It looks like Occult Academy is Tomohiko Ito's debut as a series director. He has only directed episodes of Death Note and Monster before (according to our database). Put Ito on your "directors to watch" list after Mamoru Hosoda (Summer Wars).

Apparently this is an original animation, not based on manga or a light novel series. And thank god! Anime is almost always better when it's purely original. Like Cowboy Bebop, for example.

Did I mention the show is also sexy? Maya rocks a pair of thigh high socks and chunky mod shoes, kicking ass and taking names. She's frighteningly free with her punches. This is a character I can really get behind. As long as she doesn't break down into some huge softy crybaby by the end of the series or suffer the same tragic fate as Casca from Berserk, I'll be happy.

Occult Academy is streaming on Crunchyroll.com .[TOP]

I hope I see some Maya cosplayers at Otakon. I'm sure there will be some Black Butler cosplayers.

OK, so maybe only the first episode of Black Butler season 2 is Stream Worthy. Episode two was downright Flushable, but I'm willing to give the series the benefit of the doubt. The first episode is worthwhile because it's crazy.

Kuroshitsuji II opens with a new butler and a new young master orphan kid in quasi-Victorian short shorts. Alois Trancy, the butler's charge, is some kind of psychopath (this definition not approved by the American Psychiatric Association's DSM). In the first episode, he gouges out one of his maid's eyes, just because he's bored. What a way to establish a character!

The butler, although less psychotic than Alois, is a demon, which was the conceit of the first season. This is a series about demon butlers. As a demon, this new butler, Claus Faustus, is not exactly a good dude.

I have at least one friend who will not watch any show (anime or otherwise) if all of the characters are despicable people. Personally, I don't mind if every last character is an amoral jerk as long as the plot is amusing (think Seinfeld). There are absolutely no likeable characters in this season opener. And by "likeable," I don't mean "attractive".

Because Claus is plenty attractive. He's also very talented, as was Sebastian in season one. Claus sets the table with mid-air acrobatics in an homage to the first series.

In fact, I have only watched the first five or six episodes of the original Kuroshitsuji and read the first volume of the manga. I didn't like the wacky side characters as much as the original butler, Sebastian, so I was glad to see the comedic side characters gone from episode one of season two. In fact, I never liked Ciel Phantomhive much either (he's too mope-y), so I was willing to trade in Sebastian for a new butler and a potentially more interesting cast.

Unfortunately, at the end of episode one Sebastian and Ciel reappear. In episode two Claus and Alois are totally absent as the action follows Sebastion, Ciel, the grating comedic support staff, and Ciel's super-annoying fiancé Elizabeth on a banal one-shot adventure. Alois appeared in the preview for the next episode, so I'm hoping he'll be back soon. Otherwise I have no interest in putting up with Elizabeth and the rest just so I can see some hot Sebastian action.

I think the first episode of Kuroshitsuji II is worthwhile to watch if you want to find out what would happen if a protagonist was batshit crazy Chaotic Evil? It's an interesting lesson for a writing class, if nothing else.

Black Butler has awesome manga covers that catch my attention every time. Unfortunately, the beauty is only skin deep. Volume one of the manga was much worse than episode one of the anime series (season one). I'll probably only watch more of this if they mail me the DVDs.

Black Butler II is streaming on Funimation's webiste.[TOP]

I have only cosplayed four times. When I started writing about conventions professionally, I decided not to cosplay anymore because it just wouldn't be professional to suddenly have to interview someone dressed up as a character. I didn't cosplay at any New York conventions because I didn't want my animation coworkers to know about my weird cosplay tendencies. It turned out it didn't matter; I wore my Nausicaä outfit to a Halloween party once (in my own apartment) and word got out to all my coworkers. I couldn't erase my image after that (or the pictures). I figured my Paprika outfit last year would be the last time I'd ever dress up. But Maya's outfit is seriously inspiring… Luckily, I can't afford to buy a new wig right now, let alone her nice shoes. I definitely don't have time to make (or find) a dress!

This week's shelves are from Ville, who hails from Finland:

"I'm a Finnish manga/anime enthusiastic and I've been collecting manga since 2003. With each passing year more series arrive in here, but there are still many titles that probably won't be released in Finnish for a long time, if ever. Luckily bookstores sell manga in English too, so the assortment is, in a way, really large."



Looks great!

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


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