Shelf Life
My Little Unico

by Erin Finnegan, Jul 23rd 2012

There will be no Shelf Life next week while I (unwisely) soak up the summer heat in Baltimore at Otakon. Barring some transit disaster, I'll try to make it to the ANN panel Friday at 10 AM. My personal panels are Unusual Manga Genres, Saturday at 5pm, and Culinary Manga on Sunday at noon. If you've already seen these panels earlier this year, I'm only making some minor updates (mostly involving centaurs). I won't be sad if you miss them. No really, I know there's a lot to do at Otakon.

This was a challenging week for my Shelf Life viewing. I have strict standards for Shelf Worthiness; in order for a title to be Shelf Worthy, I should want to re-watch it, loan it to friends, or it should come with super-cool extras I wouldn't want to pass up. I struggled with the rating for Cat Planet Cuties, and ultimately decided to misuse the idiom “the exception that proves the rule” and make it Shelf Worthy.

I wouldn't watch Cat Planet Cuties again and I wouldn't loan it to friends and it doesn't come with super cool extras. But if you watch only one boob show all year, it should be this one. Cat Planet Cuties is one of a small handful (no pun intended) of E-Cup anime titles I can get behind (again, no pun intended) (remember, I gave Sekirei season one a Rental Shelf).

Alien cat girl Eris makes first contact on Earth with humorous and disastrous results. She winds up living in the home of Kio, a bespectacled high school student living alone in the tropical climes of Okinawa. Like so many nearsighted solo high school kids, Kio has a nosy neighbor/childhood friend/love interest named Manami, who is instantly jealous of Eris.

So far, it sounds like every other magical girlfriend/alien harem series, right? But here's where it's different: Manami is an actual character. She has interests outside of Kio; she wants to work for the CIA. She's not just a nosy spy, she's a gun nut with spy equipment. Secondary love-interest-girl Aoi also has hobbies. I mean, she's not just into film, she's also some kind of government secret spy with a super suit. Refreshingly, even Kio has some personality. By mid-season, he's frustrated that girls keep having to save his life, and he tries to learn how to fight and shoot a gun.

Cat Planet Cuties must've had some brilliant writers behind it. The action and dialog move along at a snappy pace, with plenty of jokes when the characters aren't worrying about romance. The dialog, especially in the dub, uses the occasional cat pun, but the series certainly isn't as pun-centric as Squid Girl.

The show also boasts high production values. The budget is apparent from first half of the first episode, with its high concept adventure scenes of boats and space ships. The expensive-to-animate sequences continue in later episodes, as the series takes place across a variety of locations and the characters ride (and explode) a variety of vehicles and participate in chase scenes and numerous fire fights. There are so many action scenes and undercover government agents that I was reminded of Full Metal Panic? Fumoffu.

Like Fumoffu, Cat Planet Cuties has cute helper robot/mascot things called Assist-A-Roids. Most of them are identical, but several take on their own personalities, with two of them costumed as samurai, and the most hilarious one, Yun Fat, dressing as the eponymous Chinese action star. In an early episode, Yun Fat fires a gun in slow motion while holographic doves appear behind him (an obvious nod to John Woo). I laughed out loud.

Amazingly, Cat Planet Cuties succeeds despite the tight formulas and conventions that severely constrict it. For example, in episode seven, the characters finally attend Kio's school, perhaps because that is what the genre dictates, or it's what the viewers are expecting. This show is better than that! They didn't need any school episodes, especially since the alien catgirls have more or less established an embassy in Kio's house. CPC has enough going on that it doesn't need to lean on the crutch of otaku plot formulas!

More often than not B-level TV shows use cleavage to make up for weak plotlines and uninteresting characters (think Baywatch). Cat Planet Cuties is a good enough show that it probably didn't need E-cup chests, school bathing suits, and skin-tight powersuit armor to be entertaining. (It probably did need cat girls, or most of the jokes wouldn't work.) Adding giant boobs to an already good show may be value-add for some viewers, but for my purposes it dirties the pool. Because this is a boob show, I can't loan it to people in good conscience.

This would've remained Rental Shelf, but the show got me with its many clever sci-fi references (and film references). The ending in particular struck my sci-fi fan heart. I guess I'm willing to tolerate excessive cleavage in exchange for solid science fiction, well-written jokes, high quality animation, and a good dub. I guess.[TOP]

It happens that I watched a fan service show for girls this week that was almost the opposite of Cat Planet Cuties...

Hiiro no Kakera - The Tamayori Princess Saga has poor writing, low budget animation, and very few jokes. It's a formulaic reverse harem show about Tamaki Kasuga, the blood heir to a magic princess, who goes to live with her grandmother in a remote mountain village and fight some bad guys who want to break a seal and destroy the world.

Tamaki is protected by five guardian bishonen dudes, and you can tell this is going to be a short series when four of them turn up at once. That is to say, unlike in Fushigi Yugi, Tamaki doesn't need to find her guardians one episode at a time. I was glad to watch a series that wasn't 52+ episodes long, but the lack of introductions made it harder to distinguish between the guys. One of them likes crossword puzzles, so I guess that's something.

This is an incredibly cheap show, and here's how you can tell. First, all of the action takes place in only a handful of locations. For example, a large chunk of every episode is spent with Tamaki and her guardians at their private outdoor lunch table. This is brilliant, as it saves the animators from having to animate a lunchroom, or even a classroom of other characters eating lunch. Second, an inordinate number of shots in this show are simple camera pans up a character's body as they talk. Normally, I wouldn't even criticize that sort of camera movement, but Hiiro no Kakera is eye-gougingly boring, which gave me plenty of time to “appreciate” such details. In a final mark of cheapness, these characters are great at avoiding fights. Two entire episodes (non-consecutively) are spent avoiding a battle with the bad guys in order to put it off to the next episode.

Everything about this show is terrible. The villains are terrible, even the monsters are terrible. (To be fair, it's not like animated Titanic terrible, it's just bland to the point of being awful.) The evil henchmen are named after German numbers, and as if that weren't lame enough, one guardian brings it up as a reveal, “Those are German numbers… so that means they're fighting on the same team.” (Way to go, genius!) The monsters Tamaki runs into on the mountain are alternately cut-and-paste bad CG “drowned gods” with one identical cheesy un-animated outstretched hand each. The dustball-Kurosuke-looking white spirits Tamaki encounters are somewhat cute, but in one scene she gives one a piece of candy and the animators cut away awkwardly to hide the fact that they couldn't even animate the creature's hand grasping it.

After only two episodes, something started to bother me about Mahiro Atori, the energetic green-haired guardian with the power of wind. Mahiro's seyiuu, Kousuke Okano, is delivering an incredibly colorful, emotional, “big” performance, while his character's face barely moves. Okano is performing as if he's acting for a drama CD. Mahiro would need much bigger expressions and gestures for that kind of vocal performance. I know that sometimes anime voices are recorded after the animation is complete, but the effect is ridiculous in this show, like crappy ventriloquism.

Three episodes in, I started to dwell on the storyboard. In American animation, it's up to the storyboard artist to add emotional beats (by way of gestures and expressions) and to draw camera moves in an effective way. It's the director's job to guide the storyboard artist towards his or her vision of the show, so sure, I could also blame the director, but it seems as though the storyboard artists are more directly to blame in the case of Hiiro no Kakera.

Although all 13 episodes are streaming on Crunchyroll, I had to quit after episode eight. Even Uta no Prince Sama was better than this show, because at least I could count on the 1,000% Love song at the end of each episode. I wish I could've watched Hiiro no Kakera with Niconico.com commentary, which is a testament to how dull this series really is.[TOP]

After that I watched Unico in the Island of Magic, which easily must've had triple the budget of Hiiro no Kakera, with or without calculating for inflation.

Heck, I'd watch this again. I found the first Unico movie a little grating, with the songs and the strange segmented plot. Unico in the Island of Magic presents a more cohesive story with some nice graphic design and no songs.

In this story, the West Wind drops Unico off in a forest ruled by some uppity cat with wooden headphones. No sooner has Unico encountered the cat's gang when a crazy looking dude named Toby shows up and starts zapping the forest creatures into “living puppets” with his wand. Turns out Toby is the apprentice to an evil wizard named Kuruku, who then starts asking Toby to turn humans into puppets (“That wasn't part of the deal!” Toby complains) …starting with his own parents! Toby manages to rescue his sister from the spell, who has since befriended Unico.

And so, Unico and Toby's sister Cherry start off on a grand adventure to save their parents, and, you know, other creatures from neighboring areas, like a bunch of orphaned baby demons from Demon Valley (who look vaguely like Pokemon). Meanwhile, Toby keeps working for the wizard, whose evil scheme turns out to be legitimately frightening. (If you watched this as a kid, did you get nightmares?)

The story has an epic myth or fairy tale feel to it, and several Greek myths are invoked as the movie goes on. The film uses a lot of blocks of solid color in a graphic way. The wizard's castle has a memorable and artistic design that's otherwordly. Toby's costume is evocative, making him look halfway between a court jester and a some kind of beetle.

The human town and Toby's costume have a medieval European look, but the 1980's shine through in a magical, abstract laser-light show inspired montage in the middle of the film. More than once, Toby casts spells that turn wooden logs (or other objects) into something like a speeder bike from Return of the Jedi (also from 1983).

I was particularly taken with the wizard, who morphs into different shapes (including the Metatron?) with bulging eyes throughout the film. The wizard's lack of shape reminds me a little of the Witch of the Waste in Howl's Moving Castle, and it looks like Kuruku could have directly inspired Adventure Time's Ice King.

Gerald Rathkolb of the Anime World Order podcast is doing a panel at Otakon this year called The “Art” of Fan Service. I'd like to submit that every time Unico turns from a baby unicorn into an adult combination unicorn/pegasus, it's fan service for my 10-year-old heart. Unico is so elegant as an adult, in contrast to his usual goofy midget self! Just when Unico has seemingly taken a back seat in the film, he transforms and saves the day. In point of fact, the entire film feels like a checklist of stuff little girls might like; a dragon, a girl protagonist, baby animals, fairy tales, Egyptology, (you get the idea).

This release only includes only the English dub of the feature, with no Japanese audio track or subtitles, which is disappointing. The sole extra is the Unico Pilot Film, which is only in Japanese, and suffers from a poor transfer from some ancient video source. The aspect ratio of the pilot film is weirdly not anamorphic (that is to say, the pilot film is inset in a black box). I guess I could've made my TV zoom in on it, but it looked pretty blurry already.

Unico in the Island of Magic isn't exactly high priority viewing, but I won't mind it hanging around on my shelves for years to come.[TOP]

I wanted to mention that last weekend I saw Gyo at NYAFF. It was simultaneously grotesque and hilarious… perhaps any apocalypse you can laugh at is a good one.

I'll see you guys in two weeks with Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood OVAs.

This week's collection is from Joe Hughes, who wrote the following:

"I like to store my Anime and Manga collection on a DVD display rack I got a few years ago from a video rental store that closed a few years ago. My collection isn't big, but since I'm a highschooler with no real income, that's sort of to be expected. My entire collection consists of 10 DVDs/Blu-Rays/Seasons, 29 manga volumes, 14 issues of Shonen Jump, and 3 figures. I started my collection a couple years back when I purchased a copy of Jump, and everything sort of took off from there.

Anyway, that's my little collection!"



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