Shelf Life
Idol Warship

by Bamboo Dong, Apr 28th 2014

I've been haunting the store shelves of Target recently, picking up as much discounted Easter candy as I can. I've always vastly preferred the Cadbury caramel eggs and the mini, hard shell, candy-coated eggs to their signature creme eggs. I don't know how people are able to choke down an entire creme egg, which basically like pouring sugar straight down your throat. I like that there's a pretend yolk inside, but even though I always think, "hey, you know what sounds like a good idea? Eating a Cadbury creme egg," it always ends up being a terrible decision.

Welcome to Shelf Life.

I actually really love the AKB0048 anime (and AKB0048 next stage, which is what this particular review is for), but it baffles me on many levels. For starters, the premise of the show is just plain wonky, no matter how you slice it. It takes place in a future where humans have spread into the universe, and entertainment (specifically "idols") is strictly controlled or banned on most of the planets. Everyone is depressed and lifeless, and it's up to the guerrilla efforts of AKB0048 to bring joy and happiness to the citizens of the universe. They sneak onto various planets with their spaceship/stage, and make people realize that hey, life might suck on a totalitarian planet, but "Aitakatta" makes things better.

This is all good and well. Music as happiness is a message that I can get behind, and once you start listening to AKB48, it's really hard to stop. They have some catchy tunes. What makes this premise a little head-scratchy is that these girls are also expected to fight, both in planes and also in hand-to-hand combat. After all, they need to be able to protect themselves against anti-entertainment government raids, and also defend their audiences. Except with the exception of when they're actually performing live, you never see these girls undergo any sort of combat training. They sing and dance and bust their butts in rehearsal, but they certainly never use any flight simulators or spar.

Basically, what I'm saying is, if you think about AKB0048 too much, it's a giant confusing mess. So instead, I turn off that part of my brain. And you know what? I have an incredible time.

It's not any kind of secret that AKB0048 is a giant, self-congratulatory, circle-jerking ego machine for AKB48 and its many sister groups. You see this back-patting in the way that the girls "save" the soul of the universe, and the way that they're depicted as the only form of entertainment that exists in this timeline. You especially see it in the semi-creepy way that AKB0048 trainees battle to inherit the names of their predecessors—actual AKB48 members like Atsuko Maeda (Acchan), Minami Takahashi, Mariko Shinoda, and other current and past Team A members.

At the same time, this very same PR machine is what gives AKB0048 the material it needs to be completely engrossing and entertaining. That the series uses actual AKB48 hits is absolutely critical to the enjoyment of the series, as the group has some of the best pop tunes/money algorithms written in the past decade. "Aitakatta," "River," and "Heavy Rotation" are just a few of the AKB48 staples that make their way into the show. The use of rotoscoping for the dance numbers is clutch, too, and helps make the performances fun and engaging (unlike my new favorite idol show punching bag, Wake Up, Girls!). When the girls declare their love for the audience, you believe them, even though those emotions are just as manufactured in the anime as they are in real life.

And that's the other aspect of AKB0048 that I find completely engrossing. Unlike Wake Up, Girls!, whose portrayal of I-1 (a.k.a totally AKB48) shows the cutthroat, behind-the-scenes reality of the idol industry, AKB0048 shows the fictionalized front end—the side that fans/consumers are supposed to believe, like how the girls are really excited about handshake events and can't wait to meet their fans, and how they live solely to please their fans. There's a telling scene near the end of the series where the one girl who has a love interest almost hugs her crush… but then thinks better of it, and pulls back. Good move. Wouldn't want a scandal, now would we?

Despite the incredulity of the premise, AKB0048 next stage is still very entertaining and very hard to put down. While the first season raises questions about Sensei Sensei (which isn't really fully resolved, but we're just resigned to believe he's some kind of omnipotent voice of the universe) and the mystery of the disappearing Center Novas, this season provides all the necessary answers, as well as enough drama to keep you on the hook. We uncover a manipulative plot by a certain nefarious organization as well, which not only gives the series a more focused enemy besides the government, but provides some good fuel for the development of one of the main characters. Of course, it does come at the price of another character—we spend so much time focusing on Chieri's storyline that I'm not entirely sure we're given enough time with Nagisa to make her story entirely believable or plausible. I know "heart" and "guts" are like precious metals in the anime world, but even that doesn't quite account for Nagisa's meteoric rise in AKB0048.

For those who enjoyed the dub for the first season, it's much the same for the second season. Thankfully, there are certain a capella scenes that are spared the dub treatment, which was one of my biggest woes from the first half of the series. I know all of the English actresses are talented in their own right, but they're not ***48 members, and we certainly don't need any more dub renditions of "River."

Despite all my issues with AKB0048, I had a huge blast with AKB0048 next stage, more so than the first season. Not only did I find the resolution of the Center Nova mystery to be a good goal to drive towards, I really enjoyed the scenes that we got out of the General Elections and final concert. I've only ever been a casual fan of AKB48, but I had a great time with this show.[TOP]

Next up was Nyaruko: Crawling with Love!. I was not a fan.

I'm going to be upfront here, and admit that I know next to nothing about Cthulhu or Cthulhu mythos. I mean, I read up about Nyarlathotep on Wikipedia before watching Nyaruko: Crawling with Love!, and I feel like I had a reasonable grasp of what that was all about, but if you were to quiz me on Yuggoth, you'd just get blank stares.

That having been said, the reason I disliked Nyaruko had nothing to do with Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep, and everything to do with it being a boring, derivative, generic slop of molestation and bad jokes. I felt bad because I really wanted to like it, and in general, I really enjoy the titles that NIS America picks. They have a good track record for finding underrated gems like Daily Lives of High School Boys and The Princess and the Pilot, and they have some of the best packaging in the biz. But… Nyaruko…

The setup of Nyaruko: Crawling with Love! is simple, if not a little too watery. Normal, everyday dude Mahiro is just minding his business one day when he gets attacked by a monster. Luckily, he's saved by Nyarlathotep, an alien sent by the Planetary Defense Agency to protect Mahiro. She loves manga and video games, and although she can transform into a Kamen Rider-looking armored person, she typically prefers going around in adorable girl form. Taking on the name Nyaruko and masquerading as Mahiro's cousin, she falls madly in love with him. Naturally. Our cast is joined by Cthugha/Kuko, who is a natural enemy of the Nyarlathotepians, but is madly in love with Nyaruko. And then there's Hastur, a yellow-haired boy (who totally looks like a girl, hyuk), who's also the son of the CCE video game company owner, and who's also in love with Mahiro. Because of course.

Let's start with the good, first. When the jokes in Nyaruko hit, they hit hard, and they hit well. Fans who love their anime riddled with inside jokes will enjoy the gaming references scattered throughout the series, from the Pokémon-inspired way that Nyaruko summons her Santha dragon-bird-thing, to the extended Xoth/X-Oth (get it, X-Box) and console war jokes. There's a good bit of self-deprecation in the show, as well, ranging from the antagonists calling out anime and manga for causing "sexual crimes" throughout the universe, and poking fun at hentai games. My personal favorite was a jab at one of the Yomiuri Giants players, because I could always use a good sports zinger once in a while.

Sadly, those moments are few and far in between. The vast majority of the show (85%?) is spent on the same three jokes over and over again, which is basically variations of the following: 1) Nyaruko suuuuuuuper loves Mahiro and is trying to bang him incessantly. But, he has no interest, and so she is basically always molesting him and trying to sneak into his bed/bath/etc. And then he stabs her in the head with a fork, which, you know, I'm not super on board with either. 2) Kuko is suuuuper in love with Nyaruko, so she's always trying to molest her. 3) Hastur is suuuuuuuper in love with Mahiro too, so he's always trying to molest him. Basically there is just a whole lot of molesting going on, and not only is it pretty terrible and gross, but it also gets really, really old because it is the same joke over, and over, and over again. By the end of the series, the joke is not only dead, it's rotting in a coffin and crawling with maggots. And because the writers somehow thought "haha making babies" was so hilarious, 50% of the already-terrible let-me-bang-you/trick-you-into-banging-me jokes involve either, "Make me pregnant" or "I want your babies." Which is probably funny if you're 12, I guess, and you've finally taken a sex ed class and figured out where babies come from, I don't know. At the end, there's some alien child princess who offers to have Mahiro's babies too, but in her defense, I'm not entirely sure she knew what she was talking about (though let's not pretend the series wasn't written by people who did).

But it's just wearisome after awhile. The entire show is just an endless parade of the same three jokes, sprinkled with occasional plot advancement, which sometimes involves interstellar alien villains, or whatever. You'd think that after 12 episodes, the writers would have figured out some other jokes to tell, but no. It's the same every single episode. The only variation is how the characters end up molesting each other or expressing their emotions. Sometimes Kuko will tie Nyaruko down on an alien bed and force herself on her, whereas sometimes she'll just dry hump a sleeping bag and talk about how wet she is. Sometimes Nyaruko will hide herself in a self-constructed body pillow and squirm into Mahiro's bed, whereas other times she'll just spring on him in his sleep, or kiss him when he's unconscious. Give it a rest, characters.

One could conceivably make a case and say, "Look, Bamboo, you're not the intended target audience for this; the target audience thinks all this stuff is hilarious" but surely even these viewers are not excited about watching the same joke on repeat.

It's a shame because this is legitimately a very nice release. Like all of NIS America's releases, it comes in a sturdy, gorgeous box, with a beautiful, full-color, hardcover artbook. It was designed by people who really know their stuff, but this show just isn't good. It's tired and hackneyed, and had I not felt obligated to suffer through the entire thing, I would've turned it off after six episodes. If you like this type of low-brow humor, by all means snap this up, but nothing in this world could convince me to watch it again.[TOP]

Last, but certainly not least, was the second half of The Pet Girl of Sakurasou.

Not only does the first one or two episodes of Pet Girl of Sakurasou really do the series a big disservice, but I think the way it's marketed does it ill, as well.

Here are some snippets from the back of the box: "The care and feeding of a pet girl is something only those with the most dogged determination should attempt," and "Attentions stray, passions play and sanity frays as the housebreaking continues." My personal quibble with their copywriter's dislike of the Oxford comma aside, my beef with this copy—and also the disastrous first episode of Pet Girl of Sakurasou—is that it makes the series seem much more gross than it is. Yes, genius artist (but absolutely clueless and terrible at life) Mashiro is so scatterbrained and inept at everyday routines (it's hard to tell if she's an idiot savant, or just really single-minded in her career) that she can barely handle brushing her teeth and putting on clean underwear, but the series isn't at all what it presents itself to be, which is a gross fetish dramedy about keeping "pet girls."

Like many, I was completely appalled by the first episode of Pet Girl (and I'm grossed out by the back of the box description for this collection), but it's one of the most genuine and frank portrayals of young adulthood I've ever seen. Yes, there are a lot of quirky, stereotypical characters who live at Sakurasou, and it's rife with dysfunctional relationships and terrible jokes, but beneath that layer of lazy writing is a really good story that's simply just too insecure about its ability to sell without fanservice.

The residents of Sakurasou are finally catching some breaks. Sorata is making progress on his dream of becoming a video game developer, while Mashiro has a publishing deal for her manga. Nanami is trying hard to become a voice actress, and Misaki is doing well with her short film. Basically, life is good. Everyone worked really hard in the first twelve episodes, and they made it. And that's where most anime end. Pet Girl of Sakurasou blew me away, because it takes this trajectory one step further. It shows the disappointment and heartache of the moments when life bites you in the face, and takes away your success. While the first half of the series deals a lot with struggling to achieve your dreams, the second half focuses much more on what happens when you crash and burn. It zeroes on that one moment when you think that everything is going well, and you're going to be fine, but then you fail. No one is ever quite equipped for that. It smacks you in the head and destroys your dreams, and makes you feel like an inhuman piece of garbage, but somehow the clock keeps ticking, and you have to figure out a way to get going again. That's the second half of Pet Girl, and it's beautiful.

Somehow, under all that fanservice, and all the jokes about Sorata picking up stray cats, and Mashiro living under a mountain of dirty dishes and dirty laundry, is a show that follows the complete path of young adulthood. It starts at the bottom of the hill, when you're floundering and don't quite know what to do, then follows it upwards as you find the motivation to study and work hard and reach for your dreams. And then it brings you closer than you've ever been, before tumbling you back down. There's a scene in the series that I love where Jin tells Sorata that being friends with successful people is hard, because even while you're happy for their success, you can't help but think that life is unfair.

I think even though the themes in this series are universal and constant throughout time, they're particularly relevant now in the days of social media. You can't go on Facebook without seeing status updates from high school and college classmates, each screaming bullet points of success. And you can't help but think, "Great, but what about me?" and then feel guilty afterwards for thinking it. But this series gets it, and it tells you that not only is it okay to think, "what about me?"—it reassures you that it's normal.

Pet Girl of Sakurasou has had a lot of problems, mainly in its execution. It's wasted too much time with filler episodes, and relied too heavily on cheap, recycled fanservice elements. But it's also been infinitely relatable. I don't think the second half of the series is quite as strong as the first, as it strays off the tracks a little too often, and becomes a little mundane in parts, but I applaud it for really digging into themes of expectations and failure. I think if I were in charge, I'd rewrite the title from "Pet Girl of Sakurasou" to just "Sakurasou," because the show really is much more about the dorm residents than just Mashiro. I guess I probably wouldn't sell as many copies, either, but it'd be a whole lot more truthful.

If you were as heavily turned off by the first couple of episodes of this show as I was, give this show a shot. A lot of time is wasted during the series' 24-episode run, but for the most part, it's absolutely worth it.[TOP]

Okay, that's it for this week. See you next time with some cuticle detective-ing. Yum.

This week's shelves are from Jonathan, who wrote in the following:

"I finally completed my shelving project and figured it would be a good time to submit, even if I haven't hung artwork or such. The custom aluminum shelving really allowed me to cram a lot on to a 12 foot long wall. I still keep my small collection of artbooks and premium editions off to the side on a normal bookshelf or two. You can see my H and most of my figures are in the closet where they belong. I just noticed that Yotsuba&! is propping up my eroge. That's not right.

I was just a fan of anime in the 90's and on, as I found access to it, which was limited. Just the normal major titles everyone knows. It wasn't until I saw Elfen Lied in 2006 that I got sucked into this as a full-on hobby. If I had to name a favorite show, I'd say Genshiken. Close seconds would be Elfen Lied, Oreimo. Followed by a large cloud of other great favorites like K-ON!, Chobits, Please Twins, Azumanga Daioh to name a few. There's a clue on my main shelving about my absolute favorite episode of anime, ever: Oreimo season 1, ep. 11.

I have a sizable collection of ps2 and ps3 jrpgs not pictured. The opposite wall in that room is populated by my other nerd crap, like my 40k novels and game books, old DnD books, and advanced board games. It's handy to keep it all in one room. A room with a door. And a lock. You never know who might be stopping by! In the meantime, the anime and manga collection grows every couple of weeks. I think the time required to watch all of it might be outpacing the remaining time in my life."

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This is a pretty sweet collection.

Okay everybody, if you sent in your shelf pictures before November of last year, and I never posted them, please resend them! Things get shuffled around and lost, as e-mails tend to do, so if you want to show off your shelves, I would still love to post them and give them some love! You can send your jpgs to [email protected] Thanks!


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