Shelf Life
Cracking the Code

by Bamboo Dong,

Let me mention how much I hate the term “staycation.” I think it's supposed to make people feel better about staying at home instead of jetting off on fabulous trips, but it doesn't invoke that at all. A staycation is really just, “taking the day off.” That's not cool at all. The last time I took a staycation, I think I might have referred to it as, “ditching work.” Who knew that I was actually on vacation? Not me. So here's a big ol' finger to all those ads trying to glamorize my sick days.

Also, how freaking amazing have these Olympics been? Seriously, every day has been blowing me away. Did anyone catch that 100m dash? WOW.

Welcome to Shelf Life.

After finally accumulating the last three volumes of Freedom on one of my rental queues (because paying $90 for three episodes is insane), I was able to sit down and blast through the last episodes. They were… cute, I guess. I think I was expecting something a bit more epic when I first got to the “let's go to Earth!” story arc, but what transpired was quaint and not entirely unexpected.

Basically, after our hero and his unwilling friend blast off from the moon, they end up on Earth, right on the Vegas strip. Somehow, they're able to get a radio signal from Florida that plays golden oldies and is DJed by the smooth voice of a gal named Anne Marie. Personally, if that's what the future is capable of, then I'm pretty excited. Sometimes I don't even get LA radio stations, and I live 40 miles away. But, along the way, they meet a bunch of goofy American hippies who dance around in glittery bodysuits and who give the kids enough gas to head to Florida. Eventually they get there and realize there's a whole village of people who have no idea that the moon is now inhabited by giant, sprawling metropolises. They hatch a plan to build a shuttle to go back to moon to tell them that the Earth is okay, and that's pretty much it.

Like I said, it's cute. The whole story has just barely enough optimism and gung-ho know-how to make it, but with only six episodes to its name, it doesn't have much time to work with. It also tries way too hard to be something more. It brings up all these concepts about authoritarianism and deception, but they barely last longer than a few minutes, only to be replaced by more scenes of kids zooming around on their motorbikes. To call it a glorified Nissin Cup Noodles commercial is probably justified, and although I never felt an overwhelming desire to eat Cup Noodles, I did admire how it got more screen time than some of the main characters.

If Bandai Visual were to release all the episodes on a 2-disc DVD for $30, I'd probably buy it in a heartbeat. This is a fun story that shares that old man-goes-into-space sentiment that has been so popular throughout time. It's not really good enough to stand on its own, nor is it good enough to withstand the test of time (especially for $180), but it's sharply animated and very decently written. If you're willing to wait a while for your Netflix rentals to trickle in, this is worth watching.[TOP]

Just to inject some eye candy in my life, I also ended up popping in the second and third volumes of Strawberry Panic!, which continue to emphasize the budding relationships between the girls at their swanky all-female school. Truly, the school must be some kind of paradise, where people are seldom are angry at each other, and their coffee is never cold. Despite their lush surroundings, Strawberry Panic! seems to include drama just for drama's sake.

With the exception of one or two isolated incidents, there is nothing in the Strawberry Panic! storyline to insinuate that the girls should ever face any kind of drama. Their lives are happy and filled with tea parties, and their days play out like every other school series that's come before them, including trips to the beach, and speculation about whether or not their house is haunted. However, leave it to the writers to make sure that every last glance and every soft touch is loaded with as much subliminal meaning as possible. Even the simple act of watering hydrangeas leads to spilled water cans, tinny violin music, and dramatic would-be kisses. The mere thought of sharing an umbrella with someone can cascade into a romantic epic of Charlotte Brontë proportions.

Tragically, the girls' lives are so trivial and fraught with worried expressions that they can hardly be expected to develop interesting personalities. All of the girls have one-track minds, or at best, two. Even so, it's hard to pick out a character and say anything interesting about her, because she usually just has one shtick that she plays over and over again. Also, a big “boo” to the little girl whose only trait is her obsession with her teddy bear, Perceval. It's not particularly cute, and it doesn't seem to add anything to the story, other than the excuse to animate a stuffed bear in different outfits.

Having sat through several episodes of Strawberry Panic!, my mind is truly numb from monotony. At first, I thought the series had potential because it would uncover some sinister secrets, or maybe show some magnificent story of girls growing up together, but it's done neither of the two so far. Each episode is just another trick to get the girls together to stare at each other with lovesick expressions, and to perhaps pine for a kiss. It's not particularly bad to watch in small doses, but it doesn't actually accomplish anything. The artwork is very pretty and very nice to watch, but at the end of a viewing session, I come away with nothing. Maybe I'd be better off just playing sad violin music and staring out my window.[TOP]

Next up on my queue was something that I was quite looking forward to—the first two volumes of Code Geass. For months, I had been hearing all my friends talk about the series, and I've seen hundreds of cosplayers parade around in their trademark uniforms. When I finally hit “play” on my DVD player, I wasn't disappointed.

Code Geass is a very intense series. There's something so powerful about revolution tales, and nothing makes for good storytelling like a handful of people standing up for what they believe, and sacrificing their lives for their ideals. It worked for Dickens, it worked for Alan Moore, and now it works for Code Geass, even though the main character is kind of a self-absorbed dick. But, arrogance aside, it's the help he gets from the other rebels that really makes me want to watch the rest of the series, and cheer for their cause. They're so earnest and so passionate about their goals that they're instant heroes in my mind.

The story requires a brief explanation—in the near future, the Holy Empire of Britannia basically takes over the world—or at least Japan, anyway. They rename it Area 11, referring to the Japanese thereafter as Elevens. The Elevens are treated as second-class citizens, and are pushed into the ghettos, while the Britannians are allowed to live in the cities like aristocrats. Not all of the Japanese are willing to take it, though, and a group of terrorists make it their goal to dispose of their new government. In comes Lelouch, a prince of the Britanian Imperial Family who has to hide his identity for political reasons. After getting tangled in an incident with the terrorists, he ends up meeting a mysterious girl, who grants him the power to control other people by looking them in the eye. With that new power, he sets off on a personal mission to overthrow the Britannians, using the terrorists as his pawns to help accomplish his goal.

I mentioned earlier that Lelouch was kind of a dick, and it's true. He's not exactly the most likeable guy in the world, and he's got a streak of arrogance in him that makes him hard to relate to. With his newfound powers, he almost has a god complex that's paralleled by all the chess references in the series. He sees himself as the true king, and uses the people around him (quite literally) to carry out his objectives. It might not make him the friendliest of heroes, but it does make him someone very interesting to watch. He has selfish motives, but they happen to align with noble causes, so it becomes a question of whether the end should justify the means—an ageless conundrum that's brought up again and again in the series.

What makes Code Geass that much better, though, is all the other characters. Lelouch's best friend is Japanese, and is incidentally the son of Japan's last prime minister. However, he becomes an “Honorary Britannian” soldier, and ends up fighting against Lelouch against his knowledge. Still a very honorable person, though, he's the kind of guy that will put a battle on hold to help rescue a civilian. His character is a huge contrast to Lelouch, and that dichotomy really drives the character relationships. Add in the terrorists who are driven to reclaim their country and their pride no matter the costs, and you've got a cast of characters that's as dynamic as the impending revolution.

Code Geass has come prepackaged with a lot of hype, but I think it deserves every ounce of it. It's been a while since I've encountered such a complex protagonist, and I'm eager to see what he'll do with the rest of the series. This is a great find for anime fans.[TOP]

Lastly, one of the most underrated series of this year—Simoun. Every now and then, you'll hear a fan or two talk about this series, but for the most part, it hasn't been receiving even half the attention it deserves. I fully loved the first two volumes, and the last three didn't disappoint me at all.

The war continues to rage in Simulacrum, as the girls of the Chor Tempest face battle after battle of hardships and scrutiny. Now that the military has taken over, the girls are now being forced into battles, although many of them feel uncomfortable using their religion as a weapon for destruction. Even while the fighting escalates, though, that's hardly the focus of the series. The relationships between the girls continues to take the spotlight, and as they face more tragedies before the end, they have to come to grips with the history behind their religion and their attacks, and their country's motivations. Even more daunting is the trip that all the girls eventually have to take into the Spring to finally be assigned permanent genders.

Although every volume has always had plenty of fights, and warfare has always been somewhere in the picture, Simoun has never really been about who wins or loses. It's always been about the girls as they learn to cope with their responsibilities and their losses, and their respect towards one another. And partially, it's always been about the sacrifices of war and what it takes out of ordinary citizens. Even on another level, it's also been about gender relationships in a world where everyone is born a female.

If you like to use your brain, Simoun is a good title to pick up. You can read as much or as little into it as you want, and there'll always be something to think about. Whether you want to muse about religion's involvement in warfare, or the job opportunities that are made available to men, you can watch the series a dozen times and pull different messages from it. Not a lot of people have heard of this show, but that shouldn't be a barrier at all. It's definitely worth picking up.[TOP]

That's it for this week. Thanks for reading!

This week's Shelf Obsessor is Dylan from Santa Cruz. Some notes about his collection: the two manga closets are both two rows deep. His pictures also left out ~300 volumes of manga in boxes, ~1 cubic yard of figures, 20 LDs, ~400 OST CDs, and ~500 anime DVDs stored in Caselogic sleeves.

Crazy! I wish I had me those kinds of shelves.

Alright, want to show off your shelves? Send your jpgs to shelflife at animenewsnetwork dot com! Thanks!

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