Shelf Life
Back in Black

by Bamboo Dong,

Last year, a few weeks after I saw There Will Be Blood for the first time, I got the chance to tour Greystone Mansion, a house built by Edward Doheny, a man whose name adorns many of L.A.'s streets. He was an oil baron who happened to serve as the inspiration for Upton Sinclair's Oil!, which was also the inspiration for the film. The last few scenes of the movie were also shot in that house, notably the bowling alley scene. During the tour, I took a flash photo down a dumbwaiter, only to see the photo later and discover a corpse at the bottom of the shaft. After a few frantic emails between me, the tour coordinator, and the rangers, we discovered that it was an old Halloween prop that someone had thrown down there for fun (…or so they say.).

Just last weekend, I ended going to Greystone again, this time for an interior design showcase. The woman in charge of the tour winked at me, and said, “Go ask Ranger Steve where the corpse is.” I was torn between glee and sadness. On the one hand, it's nice that she remembered me. On the other hand, it's kind of disappointing when your only claim to fame at some old house is being that crazy girl who thought she found a corpse.

Welcome to Shelf Life.

You can tell a lot from an anime series by the first 30 seconds. Or at least you can tell just how crazy the seriously messed up ones will be. Every episode of Higurashi: When They Cry seems to have the best “Oh Shit!” moments right at the beginning, including the first episode of the fifth disc, where an old woman gets tazed in the back of the neck. Eventually her dead body gets burned with a lighter and flayed with a whip, as it sits helplessly in a wheelchair. Wow! Fun for the whole family! I don't want to ruin any subsequent scenes, but there are apparently lots of interesting ways to kill and torture people using everyday kitchen appliances. The best part is—they're all kids! Yippee!

Seriously, though, I was pretty sad when Geneon stopped releasing Higurashi: When They Cry the first time around. I wouldn't necessarily call myself a fan of the show, but it is deliciously grotesque. Sure, we've all seen gorier torture scenes in movies like Saw (1 through 5), but when some little child is stabbing herself in the head with a knife—you pay attention.

The series is sectioned into different chapters. It's paced so that the first two episodes are fairly innocuous, and set up something tragic, like a murder or a disappearance. Then inevitably, one of the kids goes crazy and starts killing people. The characters often take different paths towards death, but the emotional outcome is usually the same. Regardless of who's doing the stabbing or tazing or hammering, there's plenty of wild-eyed stares, hungry grins, and mild viewer trauma.

Needless to say, this series isn't for the faint of heart or the easily offended. It also may not hold viewers' attentions for that long, because once you've seen a couple chapters, you've really seen them all, but it's always interesting watching how each character's descent into madness takes place. That's really the focal point of the show. Everything else—animation, character design, music—that's just a vehicle for the insanity, and they play together very nicely. Things wouldn't be the same without the maniacal looks that the kids get when they're trying to kill each other, and there wouldn't be as much fear in the air were it not for the shivering and whimpering. I don't think a show like this has much repeat-viewing value, but sometimes, it's worth watching something just to see how utterly messed up it is.[TOP]

Anyone who's prone to double-dipping with their movie purchases should watch out, because Funimation's been releasing a few of their titles on Blu-Ray. The next one to get that treatment is Vexille, a visually scrumptious but narratively empty sci fi story "from the creators of Appleseed." At the very least, the Blu-Ray treatment makes it look really good. Science fiction anime was made to be shown in high definition, and Vexille is about five times sexier this way.

The story takes place in the distant future, where Japan has decided to seal itself off with a technological barrier. Nothing's been able to get in or out of Japan, not even radio waves or surveillance images. Eventually, the UN gets a little suspicious and sets up an operation to break into the barrier and figure out what's going on. Turns out, that barrier's hiding a lot more than they thought, and the reason why the country put up the wall in the first place is more than just wanting privacy.

Although the movie starts off as your typical crack-team-breaks-into-X-Place action flick, it ends up as something entirely different. A few metal-eating worms and resistance groups later, it becomes more of a post-apocalyptic tale of human survival and clinging onto society. By the time the movie ends, it doesn't accomplish the original mission and leaves that story line open-ended, but what it spirals into is interesting enough. As with many films of this nature, Vexille takes a very deep look at the human vs. technology contrast, and that alone makes the movie worth watching, evn if it's not perfectly executed.

In the end, I think I like the idea of Vexille more than I like the actual movie. The themes that it wanted to portray give plenty of food for thought, but the storytelling didn't live up to its full potential. There are still unanswered questions by the end of the movie, and had those been answered, maybe I would've liked it more. Still, it was almost just as enjoyable the second time around, though most of it's because it just looks pretty on Blu-Ray. I've always been a little skeptical of the idea of old cartoons in high-def (like Dragonball Z), but when it comes to this new computer-generated stuff, a few extra pixels can be really nice.[TOP]

As much as I wanted to stare at robots forever, I eventually had to peel myself away. The first thing my hand landed on was the second season of Sasami: Magical Girl Club, a cutesy, wannabe-serious show that can only be described as criminally boring. This volume comes with 13 whole episodes, but the thought of watching them all at once makes me want to cry. Perhaps it's because I was never part of the Sailor Moon craze, but bubblepop colors and magical conundrums fail to entertain me.

Now that the girls have firmly established their ties of friendship, it's time to test them. Obviously. Their witch mentors from the magic world aren't nearly as nice as they wanted to believe, and now they're finding themselves in scary situations of magical girl proportions, like being chased by water. You know it's supposed to be sinister, because the music has changed from a cheerful chirp to evil, frantic orchestral pieces with too many timpani drums. Only it's impossible to take their plights seriously when everything is in bright shades of baby blues, pinks, and a variety of neons. The cartoony feeling probably appeals to a lot of magical girl fans, but it's too much for me.

Also, seriously, there was a line of dialogue where one girl wanted to go to the bathroom, and the others chimed in with, “Yeah, me too!” One girl hung back, presumably because she didn't need to urinate, but Sasami cheered her up with, “Let's go to the restroom with our friends!” That's the kind of cuteness that permeates this show.

Bright palette aside, this show is just visually unappealing. Objects have minimal amount of shading, and the shading they do have follow the old-school trend where everyone's hair has a streak of white at the crown. The end effect is a show that looks strangely plastic and disturbingly fake—an impressive feat considering it's a two-dimensional cartoon. The magical effects don't exactly wow, either, with their cheap computer filters.

Maybe I'm being way too hard on this show, but I seriously feel like I'm stuck in a bad dream. Nothing the girls say is of any importance, and even their grand adventures are a chore to watch. Despite all the energy on-screen, this is one of the most boring shows I've seen in a long time. Fans of 90s-era magical girl shows will probably love this, since this is definitely a callback to those times, but it just isn't for me.[TOP]

After imprinting so much brightness into my irises, I desperately needed something dark. I figured the first volume of Darker than Black would be a safe bet. If it's in the title, it has to be true, and indeed, there was a lot of blackness, both color-wise and in terms of the story's clarity. If anyone's able to figure out what's going on after the first viewing, then kudos.

From what I can tell, the world was irreversibly changed when a mysterious wall popped up overnight in Tokyo. How it got there and who built it is a mystery, but everything changed that night. All the stars in the sky were replaced with fake ones, and people with special powers started popping up all over the world. Amongst them are spirit mediums known as Dolls, special ability users called Contractors, and moratoriums, which are kind of like Contractors, except they can't control when they use their powers. Each Contractor is linked to a single fake star, which vibrates every time that person uses their abilities, so various astronomers can figure out what's going on.

Here's the ridiculous part about Contractors. The reason they're given that name is because every time they use an ability, they have to pay for it, and each person has his/her method of payment. Some have to break their fingers, some have to drink the blood of children—and some of them get to do really trivial stuff like drink beer or eat flowers. It seems like the blood-drinkers really got shafted on this one. If all I had to do to whip out some energy beams was chug some MGD, I'd be using my powers all the time.

The main character also happens to be a Contractor named Hei, who's able to create electricity. He's masquerading as a foreign exchange student, but he's actually on a mission to find his long lost sister. He's helped out by a Doll who can see people's whereabouts through water, some Chinese guy named Huang, and a Contractor who's stuck in the body of a cat. Together they… kill bad guys? I'm not really sure what they do, actually. Like I said, the story doesn't really make sense to me right now. I'm not sure why they're killing the people they're killing, and I'm not really sure how they're involved with half the people they end up chasing. I don't even know what's up with the wall, and how, with all our technology, we couldn't pull up some satellite images or 7-11 security tapes to figure out when or how that wall was constructed. Also, how is following all these random targets around going to help Hei find his sister? I have no idea! Hell, it took me an entire episode to figure out that “moratoriums” were another class of people, because for some reason they're not capitalized in the subtitles.

I'm sure if I kept watching this show, everything would eventually be revealed to me. Right now, though, I barely know what's going on. Also, all the blonde characters look the same, so I keep seeing people running around whom I thought were dead.

My track record for keeping up with this show is so far not very good.

On the upside, it's so damned confusing that I'm almost 100% sure I'll keep watching it. I'd really like to know what's inside that wall, and I'm kind of curious why they found it necessary to shove a prostitute into a suitcase. I hate to recommend (or not) any show based on my lack of understanding, but in this case, all I can say is that your mileage may vary. Storyline aside (huge caveat!), I was entertained by everyone's powers and my burning desire to figure out what was going on. So based on that assessment alone, sure, I think people should check it out. But don't expect to get any eye-opening revelations this early in the game.[TOP]

Alright, that's my time. Thanks for reading, and I'll see everyone next week!

This week's shelf owner is Henry, from the SF Bay Area. Here's what he had to say about his collection:

Compare to other featured collectors, I don't have much titles. However, my Anime collection is consisted of 95% Japanese import DVDs, LDs, CDs, art books, and etc. I have this crazy taste for Japanese graphic & package design that motivates me to buy imports. I have no pirated bootlegged products whatsoever. As matter of fact, I abhor those laminated posters, DVDs, and CDs from HK & Taiwan.

About the shelves, I have few interesting items. A wrist watch on one of the shelves is Citizen Q'n watch, which was referenced for Escaflowne the movie. On another shelf, 4 SD Noir characters in front of two Noir DVD boxes are limited edition key chain obtained only through proof-of-purchase. On the top of the same shelf, items on the right side are Chobits stationary set, playing cards, and checkers game that came with the DVD. Also I collect promotional posters as well.

Does it mean I buy nothing but imports? No. Once in a while, I buy domestic anime DVDs like Full Metal Alchemist movie and 5 cm per second. Although my Anime collection is mostly import, my manga collection is mostly English manga. I can't show them because they're stored in boxes, and I don't have enough shelves to put them.

I would happily take some of those items off your hands should you ever need to get rid of anything.

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

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