Shelf Life
Do You Believe in Magica

by Erin Finnegan, Sep 27th 2010

I just read A,A' by Moto Hagio to prepare for the release of A Drunken Dream. My copy of A,A', courtesy of eBay, is covered with used bookstore stickers and the price has been hole punched out of the cover – but it was worth every penny! The story felt like pure-hearted science fiction from the late seventies or early eighties and the illustrations reminded me of Choose Your Own Adventure books from the same era, except, you know, manga. It was fantastic. Whoever it was on Twitter who gave me the extra push to read it, thank you!

A,A' was wholly from another era, but Rental Magica is very much of the present.

Rental Shelf: Rental Magica Part One

I reviewed the first disc of Rental Magica a few weeks ago.

I have not quite finished reading Otaku; Japan's Database Animals, but it very effectively sheds some light on Rental Magica. Azuma explains that the “grand narrative” behind anime series is gone, and the shows are now constructed with a series of elements drawn from an “otaku database.” The elements can be character traits, like “shrine maidens” or even plot elements like “a mysterious incurable disease.” These are more than tropes like on TVtropes.com. TV tropes seem to occur unintentionally on the part of the their creators, but otaku-appeal TV shows are created from the database up.

So a Shinto priestess, an onmyoji, a Celtic witch, a descendant of Solomon, a golem, and an automaton walk into a bar… I haven't quite worked out the joke, but the punch line is Rental Magica. This show draws liberally from the otaku database, and yet it is the least offensive formulaic show I've watched so far.

Rental Magica presents a harem-like situation: Adelicia (the demon-summoning Solomon descendant) likes the magic company president Itsuki, but she's stepping in Honami's territory (Honami being Itsuki's childhood friend). The three characters have a sort of non-love triangle. It's not clear if Itsuki is oblivious to their attentions Tenchi Muyo! style, or if he's too busy running the company to get a clue. The presence of ghost girl Manami and little sister Shinto shrine maiden Mikan just seem perfunctory. They are not competing for Itsuki's love as similar characters would be in a true harem. Which is good, since I usually hate harems.

My favorite character is Nekoyashiki, the onmyoji, who uses cats to help with his spells. (I swear I'm not a crazy old cat lady!) Nekoyashiki's cats are small and odd looking – maybe the character designer has not spent time with kittens, who have large heads and feet in proportion to their bodies.

The disproportionate cats are odd since Rental Magica consistently looks nice. The characters are almost always on-model, and the animation quality never looks cheap. Some of the magic effects are well done. In one episode, Honami is kept captive under a projection of a clock and the effects animation looks great.

Rental Magica gets bonus points for paying close attention to the details of magic systems. Honami harvests mistletoe under the full moon using a golden sickle. That sort of attention to the small detail really sells the show. The writers did their homework on different types of magic.

Part One concludes a story arc with some stand-alone episodes thrown in. The set concludes with an over-the-top schmaltzy Christmas episode. (Two words: ghost orphans.)

The only flaw of Rental Magica is that it's forgettable. The lack of originality makes it feel ephemeral. Watch it today, forget it tomorrow (except Nekoyashiki). Nothing about it is heinously bad, or particularly spectacular. This is just solid anime that will appeal to anime fans without being particularly impressive or disappointing. As middle-of-the-road shows go, Rental Magica is much higher quality than something like Kaze No Stigma, and the characters feel warmer and more realistic than those of Neo Angelique Abyss.

Right Stuf/Nozumi has not included a dub, but has done their darndest to provide as many extras as possible. Some kind of character bios or art galleries are on each disc.[TOP]

This week's shows get progressively better and better, from OK to spectacular.

I know Gintama has been out for a while on Crunchyroll.com, but I'm writing this review to correspond with the Collection Two set that came out in June. I reviewed episodes 1-13 of Gintama for the August 2010 issue of Otaku USA magazine. The first collection's episodes were OK, but I skipped ahead to episode 98 and thought it was hilarious. The episodes of Collection Two are more consistently funny than those in Collection One. Admittedly, I've watched this streaming and have not held the DVDs in my hands.

In the world of Gintama, aliens invaded during the Edo period, leaving present day Japan populated with samurai and aliens. It's sort of like Futurama, set in the present. Both shows are essentially well-written comedies with sci-fi gags. The plot is highly episodic so you can watch it out of order.

Title character Gintama lives an ideal 20-something slacker lifestyle. If he can make enough money doing odd jobs to pay the rent, buy Weekly Shonen Jump (the magazine Gintama runs in) and eat ice cream parfaits, life is good. For sidekick Kagura, happiness is an unending supply of pickled seaweed. Kagura burps along with the guys and doesn't even wear a swimsuit in the beach episode.

Not every episode of Gintama is a winner. Episode 17 features one too many sentimental moments with an old robot tinker. The payoff of the episode is an all-out robot versus samurai battle, which I appreciate, but it isn't worth the load of sentiment. Gintama's strength is irreverence.

Episode 18 is worth checking out. An unusual panty thief is stealing panties to redistribute to pathetic-looking men, Robin Hood-style. The panty thief is an old man wearing underwear and a mask in a strange tribute to Kekko Kamen. The dialog in this episode is hysterical.

At this point I should mention that Gintama's treatment of women is unusually good. Four-eyes sidekick Shinpachi's sister is a super-strong fighter, and so is Kagura, who happens to be an alien. The two get along well in the panty thief episode. I'm suspicious of Ayame, however, who is introduced at episode 22. She has a sexy ninja outfit and seems to be some kind of masochist. In a show free from boob-jiggling jokes up to this point, Ayame is a huge disappointment.

I like to think of Gintama as a Simpsons-like show that only anime fans will find funny. A lot of the gags are very Japanese, and require requisite knowledge of things like kappa and natto. This is not a problem if, like me, you're obsessed with Japanese culture.

The length of the series (201 episodes) is intimidating, but I've laughed out loud at least once per episode – often more than that – which is my bar for comedy series. So far it's gotten funnier the higher the episode number, so if you've tried to watch it from the beginning, please don't think that episodes 1-10 are a good indicator of the show's quality.

It would be totally sweet if this show had a dub along the lines of FLCL's dub, with just enough changes to keep the show funny to American audiences. [TOP]

I'm looking forward to more Gintama for sure. The week just kept getting better…

I was super-happy when this Moribito set appeared for $20.99 on sale at Right Stuf. Apparently it started off as a Walmart exclusive.

All eight discs are stacked on a core in a flimsy inelegant box. The minute I opened it, the DVD case cracked, ripping the cover. Even though I often take a devil-may-care attitude about packaging, I'll probably invest in a new plastic case for this one. Alert readers have already come up with a solution.

Moribito is really good. This show is worth your time. (Bamboo told you to watch it, too.) I'd caught some random episodes on Adult Swim, but Moribito lends itself well to marathoning. The episodes just don't hold up out of order.

In fantasy ancient Japan, 30-year-old Balsa is a talented spear-wielding bodyguard from the North country. She's vowed never to take another life when she's suddenly given the job of guarding young Prince Chagum while his parents fake his death. Pursued by the king's men, Balsa fights non-lethally to protect Chagum, who becomes like a son to her.

Moribito has a lot of great action but suffers from a slight lull from episodes seven to twelve. After their daring escape, Chagum and Balsa start leading an ordinary life in a witness-protection-program kind of way that isn't nearly as fun to watch as the first third of the show. Fortunately, the action starts to pick up again soon enough.

In a pleasant gender-reversal, Balsa's would-be lover and childhood friend Tanda the herbalist acts as a feminine caretaker to counter her brute strength. He patches up Balsa after every battle but feels underappreciated.

The bishonen Shuga, a young talented Star Reader, is engaged in a bureaucratic adventure in the palace, Saiounkoku-style. His research scenes in the tablet library are not the most action-packed, but they are vital to the plot in the end.

Chagum has a small problem. A creature from the spirit world has laid a water spirit egg inside of him. It might mean a horrible drought for the entire kingdom. And what will happen to poor Chagum's body when the crazy thing hatches? Mid-way through the show, Chagum starts to feel a little like Frodo.

In the one hundred years since the last egg hatched, kingdoms have been built, oral traditions have changed, and vital bird species may have gone extinct. In this respect, Moribito is favorably like Nickelodeon's Avatar: the Last Air Bender.

This is a beautiful show. Production I.G has drawn a fantasy kingdom in a way that one-ups Twelve Kingdoms (which is also worth watching) and falls just short of Princess Mononoke. The backgrounds are rich and gorgeous. Life in the palace and in the Yakoo tribes is illustrated down to an almost anthropological level of detail. When there is CG in the show it is done quite well for a television budget. All the characters are beautifully realistic looking (except Touya, the ugly one).

The ending is spectacular. In the final desperate fight, Balsa seems like Major Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (also from Production I.G) as she fights alongside an elite warrior team who start to seem a little like Section Nine, except they're fighting monsters from the spirit world.

Chagum grows and changes over time, like all well-written characters should. There are a lot of themes about parenthood, which isn't something you usually see in anime. The tear-jerker moments never go over the edge into melodrama.

The dub leaves something to be desired. Balsa often sounds stiff, like Cindy Robinson is playing Major Kusanagi - which was appropriate for a cyborg but seems odd here. Chagum sounds oddly like Orel in Morel Orel. Barbara Goodson as the old lady shaman Torogai occasionally gets in some nice ad lib lines when she doesn't have lip flap on screen.

Moribito is almost perfect. It could've used a better villain and more time in the spirit world, but those are my only complaints.

I will absolutely read the first Moribito novel now.[TOP]

Next week I'm catching up on Shiki. It's about a mysterious illness, and my throat feels a little scratchy today…

This week's collection is from Andy. It's not really a "shelf" obsessed, per se, since there are no shelves, but I want people to be able to show off their collections, even if they don't have fancy shelves.

Here's what he said about his collection:

"I left home for college four years ago with only a couple DVDs and a few volumes of manga. Now I'm traveling across several states to change college and my collection is too large to take with me. This is pretty much all of it (minus a few new purchases that didn't make it into the photo). Unfortunately I had to store most of it and I only have a bit of it with me now. "

Alright folks, keep sending them in to shelflife at animenewsnetwork dot com. Thanks!


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