Shelf Life
Freedom Riders

by Bamboo Dong, Jul 16th 2007

Shelf Worthy
Beck DVD 1
Rental
Freedom HD-DVD 1
Karin DVD 1, 2
Peach Girl DVD 2
Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya DVD 1
Perishable
None this time. Lucky.
I'm a sucker for advertising. If the TV says it to be so, then it must be, for if I can't trust hundreds of thousands of advertising dollars, who can I trust? This most recently materialized in my purchase of Asience shampoo (plus conditioner and hair treatment cream!). If you recall, not too long ago, director Kazuto Nakazawa did a 60-second spot for Asience, entitled “Hairy Tales.” At the time this was first announced, I was researching more about the ad for a news article that was to appear in Protoculture Addicts. It was then that I fell for their marketing scheme. Asian science + Asian essence? A product that touts the ability to “illuminate Asian inner beauty?” I was totally sold. Sigh.

Welcome to Shelf Life.

I am not part of the SOS Brigade. In fact, when the Haruhi Suzumiya train stopped at my station, I completely forgot to get on.

It may be that I'm a little too jaded, or a little blinded from the fumes of Haruhiism hype, but I don't really get why The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is so popular, nor do I think it's the funniest thing in the world.

The first volume introduces us to the famed Haruhi herself, a spunky girl on a quest to find aliens, time travelers, and ESPers. With the help of her classmate Kyon, she forms the SOS Brigade, a school club aimed at seeking out such oddities. Joining them is a quiet bookworm, a shy “moe” girl, and a cheerful transfer student. Where the plot twist comes in is the revelation that the club members are themselves aliens, time travelers, and the like—and Haruhi is some kind of god.

Ironic, right?

I suppose, but the novelty behind the irony kind of wears off after awhile. It's the same with the jokes. The self-aware humor in the series is funny at first, with its references to the viewing habits of otaku and their love for moe, or the clichédness of typical anime school club members (the quiet one, the shy one, the mysterious transfer student). In the end, though, just because a series can point out clichés doesn't make it any funnier than one that uses them in seriousness. Just because you're telling your audience ahead of time that you're pandering to them doesn't mean that you're not.

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is a bit of a polarizing show. For some, it's a breath of fresh air, a comedic glimpse into anime that is not only incredibly fun and lively, but one that can make sharp jabs at itself. For others, it's just another series like any other. It's hard to truly dislike the show, and the characters are hard to hold anything against, but it's not for anyone. If you think self-referential humor is a comedy goldmine, then you will undoubtedly enjoy this show. If you enjoy quirky stories about high school students, then you will probably get a kick from this show. Personally, I hope it's one of those series that “gets better,” because right now, I'm kind of confused where all the hype is coming from. Give me some time; maybe I'll be converted yet.[TOP]

From one high school comedy to another, we now traverse to Karin, an anime series based off a manga released in the US as “Chibi Vampire.” Like any romance show, it has a few staples: an awkward fledgling relationship, lots of blushing, plenty of nosebleeds, and nosy parents. Only in this case, things are a bit different. The blushing and nosebleeds belong to the female lead, a reverse vampire descended from a proud line of normal vampires.

Unlike your typical blood-sucking vampire, Karin is a bit of black sheep. Instead of sucking blood, she gives blood, like a one-person Red Cross bus, only whomever gets one of her transfusions gets a drastic personality makeover. In this case, it's the main guy's mom who makes the transformation from a depressed heap of tears to an unbearable bag of sunshine, like a giddy, drug-infused Newport Beach housewife. Problem is, the guy knows Karin's family's secret—that they're vampires, so he has to do his best to help cover her nosebleeds at school and make sure no one finds out about her lifestyle, especially the flamboyant new transfer student, who claims to be a vampire hunter.

The story's a bit pointless, to be frank. Alright, so Karin's family is a bunch of vampires. So she's a defective vampire. Essentially, what it boils down to, is that Karin is a high school romantic comedy that just happens to have vampires in it. Their only purpose in the story is to provide an alternate excuse for teen hormones. Rather than the kids doing stuff for each other because they like each other, it's really because she's a vampire. She cooks for him because she needs to keep him happy, in order to keep her blood levels stable. It's a bit silly.

The good thing is that the series seems to know it's horribly contrived. There are some sincerely funny moments in the show, such as when the lead mentions to Karin's parents that vampires can be killed by having a stake driven through their hearts. The mother looks horrified, and says, “A stake through the heart would kill anyone.” Genius.

I'm not particularly fond of this show, but it is different from all the other teen romantic comedies out there. Plus, as far as surface entertainment goes, it gets the job done.[TOP]

Now, if you'll indulge me for a second, I'd like to deviate from the reviews a little and talk about my living room. If you asked a nerdy teenaged boy to draw his dream room, it would probably look a bit like my living room, with its 55” HD TV, infestation of video game consoles, and excessive networking infrastructure. That having been said, I am prepared for anything the anime industry can hurl at me. HD DVD with 5.1 surround? Bring it.

The downside is that I expect the anime industry to meet my standards, too. If my roommate and I are willing to shell out megabux to deck out our apartment with some seriously nerdy tech toys, I expect anything released in HD to be just as awesome. Because otherwise, I'll just be sad.

This brings us, cleverly, to the first volume of Freedom, one of Bandai Visual's first forays into HD. Now, maybe I'm being naïve, but I was expecting to have my breath taken away, leaving me heaving in a puddle of nerd-happiness by my sofa. I was actually kind of disappointed.

Let's talk about the HD stuff first. For starters, it looks good, but it doesn't look $40 good. You can definitely tell it's high-def, but it's almost not worth it. The characters and backgrounds are very simplistically drawn, very basically shaded, and it feels like you're watching a Hanna-Barbara cartoon…with very crisp lines. The lower frame rate typically used in anime is so obvious with the laser-sharp video that all the pans looked jerky. The only thing that's really visually stunning is the way they rendered the Nissin Cup Noodles that the characters are eating (unsurprising, given that they helped sponsor the show). Those were nice looking. Those looked better than the Cup Noodles I have in my kitchen. If I could read Japanese, I could tell you exactly what ingredients were in the noodles they were eating, it was that preciously created.

If you don't have an HD DVD player, don't worry. The dual-layer format allows the disc to be played on regular DVD players, too. With an HD player, though, there are more options available, such as downloadable content like an opening prologue and a preview for the next episode.

The story itself is akin to your regular post-apocalyptic fare. Freedom takes place far in the future, where humans have taken residence on the moon after the Earth was engulfed in some kind of Apocalypse. The government runs a tight ship, and everything that the citizens do is carefully monitored. Having graduated from school, young Takeru is enjoying his last vacation until the government decides what job he'll be best suited for.

So in the meantime, he's gonna race his bike!! YEAH!

His friend's sister might watch, too!!! YEAH!!!

And so it goes. They spend all this money to make release a ridiculously expensive DVD, and the entire ($40) first episode ends up being a bike racing show. They could have made that exciting, by having really amazing backgrounds, exciting first-person perspective shots, and really slick motorbikes. Instead, they opted for junky mechanical blobs zooming down corridors marked only by horizontal light strips. Thanks, Johnny Quest.

It's not that the animation isn't fun to ogle at in high-definition. It's not that the story isn't interesting enough to keep watching. It's that in the end, it keeps coming back to the same thing. Forty dollars for 25 minutes of anime. That's the price of an entire cup of Cup Noodles per minute, or maybe a Hot Pocket. That's the most expensive that anime in the US has ever been, and that includes the old 2-episode VHS tapes back in the 90s.

The show isn't even that good. It's mediocre, at best, and let's face it, the reason it's getting so much hype is because this whole “HD” thing is wildly novel for anime. It could potentially revolutionize anime, and with the high-tech animation techniques that studios are using now, this could be the wave of the future. But Freedom? The characters haven't had the proper time to be fully fleshed out yet, the story hasn't had the time to become truly gripping yet, and while the hook they dangle at the end seems interesting, you have to ask yourself if it's worth another $40 to find out. Oh, and it's going to take 6 volumes to finish the series. If you're considering dropping two Jacksons on this thing, you'd better really love dull post-apocalyptic shows.[TOP]

On to better things. Namely, Beck.

Over the past few years, I've gotten the chance to gush over many shows, but rarely have I encountered a show that combined so many of my passions into one as this. Simply put, Beck knows how to rock.

The subject of teenaged awkwardness and fitting in with your peers comes up time and time again, but with Beck, there's finally a show that presents that theme just as universally as the theme itself. Koyuki is your classic teenage boy—he feels out of place, his only friend is kind of a lame-ass, he's not very good with the ladies, and he's about as “cool” as a gym uniform. He's spent his whole life shuffling around in the background, until the day he meets Ryosuke, a charismatic guitarist who slowly introduces Koyuki to the joys of rock. Immediately identifying with all the music that's suddenly become a big part of his life, our blossoming teenager is determined to learn the guitar. It may start out with just a few chords here and there, but as he gains confidence, he finds his life changing around him.

Beck is the ultimate microcosm for every teenager's life. Every kid has something in their life that makes them feel like they belong, or something that lets them forget about reality, whether it's music, sports, writing, LARPing, or millions of other things. It's series like this that show you just how universal teen angst is, and what a world of difference it makes when you find something you can be passionate about. Even if you haven't been a teenager in a really long time, there's much to be appreciated about Beck. From its genuine, three-dimensional characters, to its engaging narrative, to the sheer amount of great music, this show is incredible.

The characters in Beck definitely help make the show. There's not a single person that can be boiled down to a simple stereotype. Whether it's the playboy rocker or the hardened swim coach, everyone has his or her own story to tell. Koyuki, especially, is a fascinating character to watch. Even within the span of five episodes, his personal growth is phenomenal, and his determination is certainly admirable.

And the music! This show is a music junky's Holy Grail. Unlike other music-based shows where the same four tracks are used over and over again, Beck doesn't skimp at all. Spanning everything from grunge, to punk, to the blues, and everything in between, the soundtrack is solid. The concert scenes make you feel like you're there, and when the characters sing, you want to hear more. At this moment, it's worth commending the English dub, too; Greg Ayres does a great job of playing Koyuki, and I hope everyone is as blown away by his singing voice as I was. I watched and re-watched that singing contest scene in episode 5 with Koyuki and Maho (Ayres and Brina Palencia) half a dozen times, and every time, I loved “Follow Me” more and more.

This series is really something. It's more than just a story about being a teenager or growing up—it's a story about discovering your passions, and using them to find parts of yourself that you never even knew existed. In the words of the movie Stick It, Beck is “too much rock for one hand.”[TOP]

And though I discovered a great new show this week, I'm also a bit sad, because I feel like I've lost a dear friend. I'm a bit let down by the second volume for a show that I thought was going to aim for the stars.

When I first watched Peach Girl, I fell in love with its raw energy, its anger, its bitterness, and everything that made it personify a high school girl. I loved it for its bitchy characters and I loved to hate Sae, the antagonist who deserves to be dragged out of her 2D anime world, a la Cool World, and beaten to death with a Dooney & Bourke handbag.

The second volume is overkill.

Whatever realism the first volume had, the second one kicked it out onto the streets and urinated all over its face. After Momo's boyfriend rushes to her rescue and reveals Sae to be the backstabbing witch she is, the latter girl becomes an outcast. The tables have turned, and now it's Sae that's loathed by the student body. Being the sweet girl that she is, Momo befriends her again, but in a twist of fate, Sae starts dating a supermodel, becomes popular again, and…turns into a conniving, boyfriend-stealing monster again. This time, she really overdoes it. She hatches schemes that are not only ridiculous, but are just outright sick, like putting on a wig and trying to make out with Momo's man.

Drama is tricky. Without drama, life is boring, but once you saturate it, you'd rather defenestrate someone than be part of it for another minute. Peach Girl volume two has officially saturated itself with drama. Where the first volume portrayed themes like betrayal and jealousy, the second volume is a melee of “bad stuff happens.” None of the characters have learned anything, so what's the point? The show seems to revolve around the most one-dimensional character, and while I can appreciate using Sae as a catalyst for the other characters' reactions and emotions, it's getting a little contrived.

Peach Girl was fun while it lasted, but the show is starting to spoil a bit.[TOP]

This week's Shelf Obsessed entry is a bit different from previous one's. Belonging to Brian Stanley, his pictures represent 18 years of diligent mecha collecting. According to him, and it seems a bit obvious, he's got a passion for Transformers, namely Optimus Prime/Primal, and Zoids. And he's got a ton of Beast Wars stuff. Apparently, this isn't all, either. He's got at least 25 other Zoids elsewhere, and a giant collection of early Power Rangers mecha, including the first Ultrazord.

And this was a few months ago. I can only imagine his collection has quadrupled since then. He also sent a picture of his cute pet, Vangie. I like this guy. <3 <3 <3

So what do you think? Is his collection more than meets the eye? Would Shia LaBeouf turn green with envy? Go talk about it in our forums!

If you're interested in boasting about your collection, send your jpgs to shelflife at animenewsnetwork dot com!


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