Shelf Life
Closet Case

by Bamboo Dong, Nov 12th 2012

The winter holidays have been creeping up on us for a while now—even when the stores were chock full of fall-themed decorations and scarecrows, Christmas lights and reindeer wrapping paper were already seeping into the back aisles. Now that Veteran's Day is over, though, all of the stores have gone all out with their assault of holiday merch and it is absurd. Even the cursed TV airwaves are clogged with the same Hershey's Kisses commercials they've been running for as long as I can remember, and it's not even Thanksgiving yet. All I want to know is, who the heck is setting up their Christmas lights so early, or putting up their plastic Santas so early, or wrapping their gifts so early? Because you might be slightly nuts.

Welcome to Shelf Life.

Heaven's Memo Pad is fascinating and entertaining, but I don't think its tagline—“It's the NEET thing to do”—does it too many favors. Over the last few years, it seems like NEETs and hikikomori have become increasingly vogue in anime, so much so that I sometimes worry it's becoming a shtick. Sometimes they've been used as the subject of derision, but more often than not, they've been cast in a strangely, charmingly positive light, as unconventional heroes and beacons of nerd pride. In the case of Heaven's Memo Pad, it's the latter category. The alpha-NEET is a hikikomori named Alice, a talented hacker who runs a detective service from her apartment. Surrounding herself with stuffed animals, cans of Dr. Pepper, and computer monitors, she carries out most of her tasks through a loyal team of colleagues, including a military otaku, an ex-boxer/high school dropout, a playboy, and main protagonist Narumi, a high school student who falls in with this crowd after being introduced by his classmate Ayaka. Together, and with the occasional help of a NEET yakuza group, they work their way through a series of surprisingly intriguing “cases.”

“Cases” is in quotation marks, because although the series is about a NEET detective agency, it's not a detective show. Nor are the individual stories “cases” per se—generally, the team is asked to investigate something—a drug ring, or a missing ex-yakuza money launderer—and as the story unfolds, we learn a little more about the players involved. It's more of an action suspense show, with elements of drama and comedy. An incident about a high school girl involved in compensated dating reveals itself to be a bittersweet story about a girl who turns to prostitution to rebel against societal expectations. A seemingly silly filler about the characters forming a baseball team ends up with a cute conclusion about an ex-high school baseball player-turned-thug's athletic legacy. In short, Heaven's Memo Pad is smartly written and well-paced. It manages to set up the central cast of characters all while trotting through a collection of incidents that feel neither slow nor rushed.

Heaven's Memo Pad also manages to maintain a somber atmosphere without becoming too dreary by sprinkling in plenty of humor. The cases themselves are serious—the last story about the drug ring is a doozy and involves not only experimental psychoactive pills and junkies, but also an emotional zinger of a suicide attempt—but the characters themselves carry themselves in a light-hearted manner: Alice plays up her stereotypical moe girl persona; she not only looks like a little girl, but dwells amongst a mountain of stuffed animals and wears bear print PJs. The NEET yakuza is comprised of near-identical thugs who are comically dumb but endearingly loyal. The result is a show that is both captivating, but not too hard to watch.

Speaking of the suicide attempt, though, while that entire arc was gripping and dramatic, the resolution of it… was not ideal. For such a tragic event like choosing to end one's life, the end “motive” ended up being so fluffy in comparison that I felt the writer did the subject matter a disservice. Granted, as readers of the light novels know (and as the last few seconds of the series imply), the story doesn't quite end there, but to have suicide be the product of something relatively trivial and sentimental seems wrong, despite its final push from heavy narcotics.

Ultimately, Heaven's Memo Pad surprised me with how much I enjoyed watching it. Having almost no expectations of the series going into it, except that awful and vague tagline, I was prepared to dismiss it. By the end of the first episode, though, I already knew I was going to enjoy the series. It's difficult to fully capture the vibe and atmosphere of the series with just text. Heaven's Memo Pad is at once suspenseful and exciting, but also introspective and bittersweet, with touches of cheesiness and comedy. It's a show that defies categorization, especially under the quick ‘n’ dirty synopsis of being about a NEET detective agency. I'm glad I gave it a chance, though, and I think it's a fun little series that will appeal to a wide range of anime fans. It's definitely a series that always had me itching to watch the next episode.[TOP]

Having thoroughly enjoyed myself with one show about detectives, I wanted to keep the ball rolling with another. This time, I went for the sort-of-supernatural-kind-of-political-mostly-mystery-genre Un-Go.

Un-Go is almost really good. It shows a lot of promise early on, and all throughout the series, it maintains an even level of entertainment, but it never quite realizes its full potential. It's like a hamster in a wheel trying desperately to roll up a hill, but unable to crest that final bump. In a way, it's almost more disappointing this way—knowing that the series could've been truly extraordinary, but walking away feeling a little empty.

In fact, Un-Go is almost a lot of things. It's almost a detective show—its main star is Shinjirou, a smart, talented detective who has a bad reputation for never winning. Together with his boss/assistant Inga, a sexy demon-lady-disguised-as-an-irritating-kid, he uncovers the truth behind a lot of political scandals and conspiracy theories, but they're always eventually covered up by the government. It's almost an indictment of a bloated bureaucracy—most of the cover-ups are handled by Rinroku Kaishou, a renowned detective who prefers to work from the privacy of his home. Despite his constant burying of conspiracies, though, this is never fully addressed; government is never taken on, the rocky post-war social issues that peek throughout the series are never developed, and the cover-ups are seldom questioned. And Un-Go is also almost a supernatural thriller—Shinjirou's mysterious contract with Inga means that she can help him by forcing suspects to truthfully answer one question… but even though the backstory behind this contract is hinted at throughout the show, we never fully grasp what happened. Even in the last episode, when we get more of a full picture, it doesn't quite answer all of our questions. Instead, the entire character of Inga feels more like a cheap parlor trick that Shinjirou uses, even though there are other demon-like-entities similar to her who exist in the series and are used by other characters. At some point in the series, the conspiracy-based mysteries are replaced by a crazy mind trip where Shinjirou is locked inside someone's fantasy for a few episodes, thanks to another demon-thing who resurfaces as a villain, but is never fully explained.

I suspect, though, that all of my dissatisfaction with Un-Go results from adaptation problems. The series is based on a work by Ango Sakaguchi, a lauded author whose worldview was heavily shaped by post-WWII Japan. Early in his career, he received praise for penning an essay called "A Discourse on Decadence" (of which translations exist in various places online), in which he talked about the concept of bushido during the war, and the aimlessness of Japan after the war. Even in Un-Go, the source material for which was written almost 40 years after that essay, you still see a lot of that social and political dissatisfaction. There are several instances in the series in which political activism is examined and people's restlessness after the war are prodded, but as is the case with the entire series, it's just not quite there. Everything about Un-Go is frustratingly half-formed, and I can only assume that many of Sakaguchi's ideas were lost in adaptation.

That isn't to say Un-Go isn't entertaining. It is. You can sit down and watch the series and be absorbed by it, but it just constantly knocks on the door of grandeur without ever breaking it down. The conspiracies are interesting and seldom predictable; the entire Bettenou arc is… well, it's as unpredictable as it is jumbled and confusing. And one has to give the series credit for being visually captivating. The character designs are lanky and svelte and impossibly cool, especially Inga, whose entire existence wavers between sexy and terrifying. But in the end, I feel like while Un-Go is interesting enough to watch once, it doesn't fulfill me enough to want to keep for posterity. [TOP]

Moving away from mysteries for a while, I reached for the Fafner movie, hoping to get my monthly fix of giant robot battles. I was not let down by the battles.

Let me say this upfront—if you haven't seen the original Fafner TV series, you have no business watching the movie. I guarantee you it will not make any sense. Fafner: Heaven and Earth is a direct sequel of the series and takes place two years after the events of the TV anime. What was originally presumed to be long-term peace is shattered when the Festum return, along with a mysterious boy whom series protagonist Kazuki originally hopes is his dear friend Soshi. Kazuki is still living with the consequences from the series—he's nearly blind, with his vision still deteriorating, and he's still shaken by the loss of his friend. While he and a few other staples from the previous cast hold down the fort for this movie, a new cast is simultaneously introduced, albeit not as completely as one would like. They manage to fill time and space, though, and the cockpits of the Fafners, and provide the core of the many action scenes that saturate the movie.

The central premise of the movie is that bad guys are back, and they're not happy with how the way the series ended. Their population is in pain and they're blaming it on humans, and although the messenger they've sent claims they want to do what's best for the world, they won't stop attacking the inhabitants of Tatsumiya Island.

Action-wise, Heaven and Earth is fantastic. The mech vs Festum battles look fabulous, and the aerial acrobatics that the robots do are a feast for the eyes. In terms of fight choreography, this movie is a ton of fun. Character-wise, there isn't too much to write home about, and for viewers who weren't fans of the series' hatch-shaded character designs and weird-shaped heads will have to live with them again. Unfortunately, though, the action sequences are kind of the only stand-outs about the movie. While its admirable that the sequel has a plausible story and a reasonably engaging premise, the execution of it leaves much to be desired. Even though the events in the story are themselves linear, the movie feels hard to understand because none of the character motivations (for either human or Festum race) are really explained. Events happen merely for the sake of happening, and rather than having a cohesive narrative, Heaven and Earth feels more like a series of action-oriented plot points. Plot Point A, fight; Plot Point B, fight; Plot Point C, fight; etc. For a story so simple, the end product should not feel as jumbled as it does.

That having been said, as far as film sequels to TV series go, Heaven and Earth is… acceptable. Meaning, as a fan of the series, you won't be gravely disappointed, but you probably won't be singing its praises either. It's a good addition to the franchise, but its existence doesn't feel necessary. If anything, it's a nice treat for pre-existing fans who wanted to see yet more robot fights. Those, at least, looked incredible.[TOP]

That's it for this week. For everyone who has a three-day weekend, I hope you're enjoying yourselves! For everyone else, I hope you had a nice weekend regardless. Also, if you have pictures of your shelves, please email your jpgs and a brief description to [email protected]! And if you sent in your shelves ages ago, but they were never featured, please send them again! Thanks!


discuss this in the forum (78 posts) |
bookmark/share with:

Shelf Life homepage / archives

Around The Web