Shelf Life
The Philsopher's Stone

by Bamboo Dong, Aug 1st 2011

Hello everyone! While Erin's away cracking crabs and enjoying the sweltering humidity of Baltimore, I'm holing myself up in my apartment and watching some good ol' anime. That, and staring at my new toys that I bought at Comic Con. Every year, I tell myself I won't buy anything, but every year, those damned figure companies have to keep making stuff that I want. It's not me that has the problem—it's them. It's a conspiracy against my weak will and my barren wallet, and I'm the victim.

Welcome to Shelf Life.

I think the only thing worse than a bad anime is one that, for whatever reason, you can't stop watching. The kind of show that makes your eyeballs hurt because they won't stop rolling backwards into your skull, but also the kind that grudgingly forces you to hit the NEXT button on the DVD player. It's not even one of those “so-bad-it's-good” shows. It's more like a demon that possesses you, then forces you to watch yourself slapping your own children.

Baka & Test isn't based on a trading card game, but it feels like it is. That, or one of those old school MS-DOS edutainment games they had in the 90s where you had to solve math problems to race your pixel car around a track. Basically, the students at some special high school are divided into six classes—Class A through Class F. Class A is stocked with sofas and laptops and soda fountains, and only the smartest kids are allowed to be there. Class F has all the rejects, and because this fictional world has no government-regulated education standards or lawsuits, this classroom is dusty and furnished with broken tables. Luckily, social mobility is honored in this world, so the classes are allowed to battle with each other to exchange equipment. The way they battle? They summon avatars, whose stats are based on their latest test scores, and they square off against each other, turn-based RPG-style. COOL, RIGHT? Hey kids, if you don't study hard, not only will your environs be terrible, but you'll also die on the streets.

No, wait, I feel like I didn't properly emphasize what this show is about. The students fight each other using their test scores. And if their stats get dangerously low, they can go take a make-up test to try and raise their score. Not only is this the lamest fighting system I've ever heard of, it's also the squarest and the most boring. Furthermore, because they can only fight each other once every three months, after Class F fights Class A in the second episode, we have another 10 episodes of filler until they fight again.

And yet I watched all of it, like an abused puppy, because I couldn't stop. Two reasons: Firstly, as much grief as I give the premise of the show… well, dammit, I wanted to know what happens. How will the dumb kids beat the smart kids?? Through savant-level cunning?? Secondly, the show does occasionally have its funny moments. Much of the humor relies on visual gags. The majority of them pretty hackneyed (guys getting punched, guys in drag, guys getting nosebleeds), but every now and again, the animation style switches up just long enough to deliver a stylistic gag. For instance, something melodramatic will be uttered, and the characters will suddenly be drawn in the style of an 80s cop drama. Or some cute girl will say something sinister, and she'll suddenly be uglified and given crazy eyes. It's been done before in other shows, but I enjoy this kind of thing. It shakes things up a bit, so things don't get horribly stagnant.

It should shock no one to learn that this series, based on a light-novel series and subsequently adapted into a couple of manga, is aimed at teenage boys. The male lead, whose hidden superpower actually is that he's an idiot, is being chased by two girls (and later his sister. Obviously.). One of them is the sweet and brilliant Himeji (who's also a bad cook!), and the other is the fiery and flat-chested Minami (who loves to cook!). Flat-chested gals beware—if you want someone to affirm you that you can be small-breasted, yet still womanly, the men of Baka & Test are not it. They will remind you over and over again that real women must be nurturing and chesty. Then again, this series isn't exactly progressive when it comes to gender and gender identity issues. One character in particular, Hideyoshi, is a bit of an enigma. He uses masculine words, but looks female, to the point where the men in the show are always trying to get him in drag. But they also don't let him bathe or change with the guys, and point him towards his own “Hideyoshi” bath and locker room. I don't want to get into this here, but it warrants a longer conversation.

So it boils down to this one question—should you watch Baka & Test? With absolute conviction, I can say that you will not be missing out by not watching it. At the same time, once you start, I guarantee you it will be very difficult to stop. It's trite and idiotic, yes, but there's something about it that just makes you keep wanting to watch more. It's got to be a curse.[TOP]

Despite my feelings on Baka & Test, I'll be the last one to tell you that I require my entertainment to be highbrow. I may not have liked the pointlessness of that show, but I do have a weakness for some trashy shows… and Shin-chan is on that list.

Thank goodness for the short format of Shin-chan. I love me some Shin-chan, but I really don't know if I could handle it if each bit was 30 minutes long. As it is, a fair amount of the mini-episodes get stale halfway through. Look, I love my John Boehner jokes as much as the next hot-blooded Democrat, but 10-minutes of non-stop politico humor can be exhausting.

But that's the best part about Shin-chan. The way the episodes are laid out, each joke category is only cycled to once every six or seven mini-episodes. If you're in the mood for non-stop housewife jokes, you can easily search them out by making some educated guesses on the episode titles. If you want a mix, you just have to press “play.” There's enough variety on each volume of Shin-chan that you could reasonably entertain yourself in short spurts of time for at least a few weeks, provided you don't burn out.

I'm sure there's still a good number of fans out there who refuse to buy the Americanized version of Shin-chan, and I will freely admit that the humor's not for everyone, but if you haven't seen any episodes, I do recommend checking out one or two. The writing staff does a really good job, and although they don't always knock it out of the park, they're batting at least 400. Considering how hard it is to make people laugh these days, that's a pretty good statistic. At one point, scrolling text says something along the lines of, “We wanted to go for a really clever joke here, but we're not talented enough to pull it off, so here's something else.” I probably paraphrased all recognition out of that one, but it made me laugh at the time.

I like having shows like Shin-chan on my shelf. It's easy, disposable humor, and it's nice to know that you can reach for something that'll shut your brain off, 10 minutes at a time. Not every joke will make you laugh (I hate anything and everything related to Shin's ass), but chances are, you'll find something in each mini-episode that'll force you to crack a smile. [TOP]

Luckily for me, right as the weekend was drawing to a close, a magical package arrived in the mail—the fifth and final volume of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.

Only two words could properly express the final volume of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood: OH. SHIT. Everything that the series has been building up to in the first 50-some episodes converges in a fiery explosion of plot twists and action sequences. The entire last volume had me bug-eyed and gasping at the screen. Not only did it tie up all the loose ends, but it's also a very emotionally satisfying ending.

Truthfully, it took me a while to get into Brotherhood. It wasn't until maybe halfway through the second volume that I warmed up to it, but soon after that, it quickly proved to be an outstanding show. The characters are a lot more fleshed out than in the original series, and even in the last volume, there are some more interesting scenes with Mustang and Hawkeye that give an extra glimpse into their relationship. The Homunculi, too, are a lot more three-dimensional in this series, and I must say that I almost shed a tear at the demise of one of them. Basically everything that was good about the original series, Brotherhood just does better. The characters are better developed, the action scenes are crazier, the explosions are bigger, the villains are badder, and the finale made me yell at the TV so loud, my roommate came out to see if I was okay.

Obviously, if you've already been following this series up to this point, you're going to keep going. The pacing in Brotherhood is such that it's actually pretty difficult to stop watching, and the last volume is no exception. But I want to assure everyone that yes, the ending is as satisfying as one could hope for, and I was happy to discover that there was a good balance between the supernatural alchemy/Homunculus aspect, and also the human political aspect. One of my favorite scenes actually occurs in the first episode, where radio workers slyly spin a narrative about the coup.

Of course, these episodes are not without some humor to lighten up the mood. There's an amazing scene between Armstrong and Izumi's husband that's not to be missed. But overall, the atmosphere is pretty dour. There are no shortage of deaths, and the design team really knocks it out of the park with some ultra-creepy monsters. A lot of credit has to be given to the Japanese voice actors, too. A few of the English actors do a good job at sounding creepy, but the Japanese actors really excel at it. There were a few actors whose performances were so chilling they made my skin crawl.

For everyone who's still working their way through the first few volumes of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood—I can't wait till you get here. And for everyone else who's shied away from watching this show, I really urge you to give it a chance. Endings can really make or break a series, but I enjoyed this one immensely.[TOP]

Alright folks, that's my time. Thanks for reading, and for everyone who was at Otakon, I hope you had an amazing time!

This week's shelves are from Lyrai:

"Hello! I'd been wanting to send in my stuff to Shelf Life for a while now, but I kept getting sidetracked. Then more DVDs came here, and the main shelf got the way it is, and I figured I'd better send it in before it all collapses.

The Manga shelf is packed so tightly that it's going to fall apart any day now. I didn't want to mess with the top shelf, so take my word that behind those books is the full run of Kenshin and Bleach. I removed the books and gave a picture for the second and third shelves.

As for the random luke skywalker figure in there, that was a gift from my parents, who saw it at a garage sale.

When I had a job at a call center, before it closed, I would constantly bring in entire rows of manga in a duffel bag, and let my co-workers read them freely. I was a library. Eventually they would give me a couple bucks each month for new releases, and I got at least 3 people hooked on anime."


I hope your shelves don't fall apart; they're pretty sweet!

Want to show off your stuff? Send your jpgs to [email protected] Thanks!


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