Shelf Life
Rise and Shine

by Bamboo Dong, Mar 24th 2014

With a large group of my hometown friends in Japan on a PacSet Tour and what feels like 80% of my Facebook feed in Tokyo for Anime Japan, I feel super left out. All week long, I've had to stare at other people's pictures of croquettes and ramen and Final Fantasy-themed ice cream sundaes at Square Enix's Artnia café. The last time I was in Tokyo was in 2007, and since then, I've been eager to go back, if only to stuff my face full of bread again. Not fair, Facebook friends, not fair.

Alright, welcome to Shelf Life.

It's always a little odd watching a show or movie where the entire time, you have a voice in the back of your head that says, "They're trying to sell me something." This isn't uncommon, of course; there are gobs and gobs of shows that are basically just advertising machines, hawking the next generation of plastic models or toys or card games— it just feels a little weirder when a show is trying to sell people. Once again, even this isn't uncommon, but it does put a slight twist on the viewing experience.

With Wake Up, Girls!, it's hard not to think, "These girls are really sweet!" without a second thought careening in, "Dammit, they want me to think that. They want me to buy CDs!" Likewise, thoughts of, "They try so hard! They're so determined!" are inevitably interrupted by a niggling thought that says, "Are they just trying to convince me to go see a show??" Lines between reality and fiction are blurred, and one can't help but wonder whether the girls really are like their on-screen personas, or if it's just an elaborately crafted marketing campaign meant to drum up feelings of moe to boost future sales.

You see, Wake Up, Girls! corresponds with a real-life Wake Up, Girls!, which was created concurrently with the anime. The talent side of it was spearheaded by production company Avex and talent agency 81 Produce who combed through thousands of girls to find the lucky several who would not only voice the characters of WUG, but sing the show's theme as well. And, well, be them. (Here's a video of the girls singing and dancing the opening theme.) The names of the characters even correspond to the given names of the girls; some of the anime character designs are even modeled after a few of the girls, even down to facial moles.

Where the show really gets interesting is not so much the Wake Up, Girls! themselves, but the way they're contrasted with the in-show supergroup I-1, which is kind of the WUG-world equivalent to the AKB48 juggernaut (or rather, the ***48 juggernaut). While WUG is shown as folksy, and kind of slapdash, and pretty down-to-earth, I-1 is shown as a systematic factory for churning out idols, where the girls are cold-heartedly cut for simple mistakes, and are forbidden from external relationships (recall the Minami Minegishi incident). The anime portrayal of I-1—that's the cutthroat reality of the idol industry, one that looks behind the ruffles and the photo books and the dance crazes. WUG, by contrast, is the anti-idol industry idol group. Their lack of refinement is their charm, and their gung-ho, go-get-em attitude is their selling point. Whether that's the case for the real-life Wake Up, Girls! is another question, and one that can't help but poison the viewing experience a little.

But enough waxing about the idol industry—the anime (kudos to those who can separate their enjoyment of the series from musings about the great Idol Machine) is impossibly charming, for the same reasons I listed above. Never mind that the girls follow the same roadmap that all anime idols follow—the training, the in-group fighting/making up, the regional idol competitions, the rivalries (it would not be unfair to compare WUG to Love Live! School idol project)—what sells this show is the Wake Up, Girls!. They don't quite get the level of character development that would push this into another level—most of them are manufactured idol archetypes like "this one likes to eat!" and "this one is clumsy!"—but they are loveable and easy to like, which makes them effortless to root for. You can't help but wish them well, and every time they hit a stumbling block, you ache to watch the next episode because you just want things to get better.

Of all the girls, the most interesting is Mayu, who also has the most thoroughly developed storyline thus far (although others have plenty of potential, including Kaya, who carries painful memories from her childhood; and Minami, whose volunteer work at a senior center could lead to some tender moments down the line). Formerly the I-1 center, she left the group, leaving behind an uneasy friendship with some current I-1 gals and a messy relationship with her mother. Not only does it give the series a good chance to further contrast life in WUG with life in AKB4—I mean, I-1, but it leads to a tear-jerking moment in episode 10 between Mayu and her mother.

Quality-wise, Wake Up, Girls! is a mixed bag. The character designs are pleasant, if not entirely memorable, and the animation is… well, it has its moments of both good and bad. There are scenes where the quality control absolutely plummets, leaving behind some questionable frames. The dance sequences get hit the hardest budget-wise, relying on still frames, clunky animation with dead-eyed faces, and a plethora of audience reactions to convey the choreography. It's the most noticeable in episode 10, especially after the series makes such a big deal about how "difficult" the choreography is. Perhaps we'd get a better idea of the choreography if we saw anything besides jazz hands and some arm-waving.

Problems aside, though, Wake Up, Girls! is largely delightful, and those who like idol entertainment will most certainly enjoy this series. The girls are adorable, and their status as underdogs makes them even more likeable. And, for those who do enjoy scrutinizing the idol industry, the snippets featuring I-1 inject a depth, however planned and marketing-approved, that make WUG worth watching.[TOP]

When I wasn't secretly practicing my own Wake Up, Girls! dance moves, I was watching the rest of Robotics;Notes.

My biggest issue with Robotics;Notes is that it doesn't know what kind of show it wants to be. As a viewer, this can be monumentally frustrating at times, because it breaks up the flow of the viewing experience—especially if you're marathoning several episodes, like I tend to do with boxsets (although watching this series one episode at a time, once a week, doesn't really make it better). Robotics;Notes is about 1/4 slice-of-life (with a focus on family, which I noted with gusto in my review of Part 1), 5/8 supernatural thriller + robot fighting, and 1/8 outright mumbo jumbo. Most of the series is pretty fun, despite the utterly jarring transitions between its slice-of-life and global conspiracy components, but it's that mumbo jumbo part that really pulls viewers out of the series. It's a bit like having a delightful conversation with a stranger on a train, until he starts talking about how 9/11 was a conspiracy and that El Nino is a plot orchestrated by the government, and now you're trapped on a train next to a lunatic with nowhere to go.

Robotics;Notes plants this seed early in the first half of the series, with mysterious AR girls who only exist in the Cloud, and monopoles dropping from the sky. I would say that the exact moment the series turns around, for better or for worse, is when the characters get the chance to view the lost "last episode" of Gunvarrel, the fictional mecha show within the series. It's creepy and haunting, and it's the perfect segue into Part 2 of Robotics;Notes… except it's also foreshadowing of the madness to come.

What once was a quirky and bizarre dip into the supernatural/pseudo-science pool becomes a full-on swim, and it's not entirely pleasant. Borrowing elements from Steins;Gate and Chaos;HEAd, the last half of Robotics;Notes is a bit of a trainwreck. The open-ended questions raised in the first half of the series are answered with ridiculous, over-the-top nonsense, from mysterious black boxes that force an Augmented Reality pseudo-reality (reality²?) on ordinary citizens, to needlessly intricate conspiracies that involve space agencies and physics consortiums and anime production companies and tech geniuses and everything in between. If the series wanted a Wow! factor, it certainly got it, but not without a chaotic mess that throws the "how"s and "why"s out the window. Even the circumstances that lead to the final showdown between Kaito and Misaki are a little on the stupid side, revealing that one of the big mysteries of the show was nothing more than a plot contrivance that would allow the final fight to be won.

That having been said, there are still aspects of Robotics;Notes that are wonderful, and it's the same aspects that made the first half so incredible—family. There's a quote that the characters use in the series to describe their island; paraphrased: "It's so big, and so small." It's the very concept of community, whether it's a microcommunity like a familial unit, or a larger community, like a school or a town. We see it with the way the Robotics Club members interact with their parents or siblings, and we see it in the moments where community members come together, unified, to help them finish their robot and face a threat. Those scenes are what glue the disparate elements of the series together, and almost forgive the bullcrap in the middle.

One quick note about the series—I was adequately impressed with the English dub treatment of Frau/Kona, especially considering what they were given to work with. I'm not a fan of the character's original speaking traits in general; I think the "OMGLOLs" and "PWNS" and "N00Bs" that the character throws into her speech patterns are really forced, and sounds a whole lot like what a room full of old people would come up with if they tried to write a "L337" character. That having been said, the English dub does a good job with her, and Leah Clark does an admirable job of integrating e-speak in a believable manner.

I try not to write reviews in such a manner where I call out other series, but in this case, I'll make a small exception, if only to say that if you haven't seen either Robotics;Notes or Steins;Gate, I would recommend Steins;Gate more. There are elements of Robotics;Notes that I absolutely love, and the more times I watch the series, the more I love the unspoken elements between the characters and their family members (there is a beautiful scene near the end when Subaru gets to work alongside his father, which is matched by the hope in Akiho's eyes at the thought of meeting her sister at the Robot Expo). Despite all the things that I admire about the series, though, there are parts that are just an absolute wreck, especially as the storyline starts clawing desperately out of the conspiracy coffin its built for itself. Do I think the series is still worth watching? Absolutely. You might get a little angry at times, but what you do get out of the series makes it worth watching at least once.[TOP]

I finished out the week by checking out Jormungand Perfect Order.

Whereas Jormungand was a blood-spattered, action-fueled spectacle of guns, bombs, car chases, and knife fights, Jormungand Perfect Order is a much more well-reasoned, much more thoroughly thought-out, much better written series with better character development, more humanity, and more calculating precision… along with some guns, bombs, car chases, and knife fights. Instead of the choppy one-offs that populated the first series, Perfect Order stretches its arcs to multiple episodes, averaging three for each arc (with a longer one at the end). While this means a lot more talking and plotting, it also means that we actually get a chance to involve ourselves in each story more.

The biggest beneficiary of this is Koko, the white-haired, white eyelashed maniac that we've all grown to love. The first series establishes her as quirky and strange, cackling on pieces of furniture and being generally nefarious—this series establishes her as a human. For what really feels like the first time, we see what happens when she's scared. Sure, she rebounds just as quickly into the calculating Koko that we've grown to appreciate, but we get the chance to see her as an actual person, who occasionally fears for her life and those around her.

This isn't to say that there isn't any action—there still is, but it's used more naturally and effectively this season, punctuating plot climaxes instead of just being the bullet-spraying norm. And for those who are curious, it's just as gory this season. One of the early scenes involves a scene where two snipers shoot at each other, culminating in two bullets that simultaneously smash into their opponents' scopes and into their eyes. It's gruesome, but in a 2D, fictional, animated world, it's pretty cool. To the series credit, none of the fights or set-ups copy those from the first season either, so there's no danger of the action getting stale.

It helps that the series is beautiful, in a weird, creepy stark way that involves intricately drawn buildings alongside characters with bulging eyes and gaunt faces. Certain scenes are (perhaps too?) vividly drawn, like one scene in which a topless girls' breasts are bizarrely detailed, to the point where an artist lovingly created bumps on her areolas. I guess if that's where priorities lay, who am I to judge, really.

I realize that everyone has different tastes, which is such a "duh" statement that it barely warrants typing, but in the case of Jormungand 1 and 2, it's worth mentioning. I say this because I vastly preferred Perfect Order to the original. I love my gun fights as much as the next action freak, but I like them a whole lot better when they're side dishes, and not the main course. I get wary when casts are too big, because I feel like I don't actually know any of the characters. I love character vulnerabilities because I enjoy seeing what someone is like when their public shell cracks. I like Koko better now, because I see how she responds to betrayal in the moment, instead of after the fact. The other characters get a boost, too, having time to actually talk about themselves instead of just diving behind cars and trash cans.

Jormungand Perfect Order is still a little on the choppy end, and there are times when the dialog gets a little stilted because the characters can't just rely on grenades to advance the plot. But overall, this is a much better season. I felt pretty "meh" on the first series, but had a hard time putting this one down. If you're like me, and you were lukewarm on Jormungand, I'd give this one a shot.[TOP]

That's it for this week. See you next time with more Ikki Tousen!

This week's shelves are from Will:

"My name is Will Murray. I am 62 years old and have been collecting anime since the 1980s. I also like and collect Kaiju Iga (Godzilla and other giant monsters) and Samurai movies. As far as I can tell I am missing only one Kaiju Iga movie, Rebirth of Mothra lll. It was never released in North America. Having seen Rebirth of Mothra and Rebirth of Mothra ll I can imagine why. To make these titles more appealing to young girls the monsters got miniaturized, not too exciting but quite cute. TOHO made these three movies to appeal to little girls in answer to the Gamera movies which it is generally acknowledged as being made to cater to little boys like me.

As you can see I've seen a fair amount of anime. My current favorite is Cat Planet Cuties. As an essay on fan service it is without pier. Everything in that show is fun. Every type of fan service gets a nod (they don't resurrect the Yamato but that had already been done a couple of times) along with a host of cultural references, Japanese, English, and North American, The Prisoner, Sonny Chiba, Negima!, Bewitched, all kinds of stuff that is great fun to identify. Lots of cute girls, cute cars, cute space ships and cute enemies. The eye catches are all really nice and educational, wild life and Okinawan food.

Lately I have been working on the Gundam. I watching Double Zero now and really enjoying it. "

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Love these shelves! Definitely jealous.

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